Shortly after Eric J. Smith became superintendent of Anne Arundel County schools a year ago today, he visited an elementary school and asked to see a math textbook. The teacher retrieved a three-ring binder filled with pages of lessons and problems written by the school system's math specialists.
"She explained how she would copy these pages from the binder" to give to pupils, Smith recalled. "I was shocked."
A year later, an unprecedented $13 million worth of textbooks are on order, just one example of an aggressive freshman year in which Smith has reformed nearly every aspect of the system.
Fourteen of the county's lowest-performing schools have finished piloting new back-to-basics reading and math curriculums. High schools are offering more Advanced Placement classes than ever, with an eye toward attracting more minority students. And middle and high school teachers are being trained to teach 86-minute class periods - a structure that Smith believes is more conducive to in-depth study.
Supporters say Smith has an outsider's perspective and a willingness to make gutsy decisions that could shake up an average-performing, 75,000- student school system accustomed to doing things a certain way.
"I have not been so excited about the beginning of the school year since my first year of teaching," said Paul Vandenberg, principal of Southern High School, which starting this fall will offer a wide menu of AP courses, including studio art and economics.
For others, however, the textbook purchase and other initiatives are worrisome signs of a superintendent bent on making sweeping changes with little caution. Some teachers accused Smith of pushing his initiatives at the expense of pay raises, and questioned his acceptance of a $25,000 educator's award from one textbook publisher. He later restored some of the raises, which had been cut by the county, and used the cash prize to establish scholarships.
"I'm just disheartened by everything," said Tracy Tischer, one of many teachers who is exasperated by Smith's top-down management style. The Northeast High School English teacher is considering leaving the profession after 16 years. "It just feels like the rug has been pulled from underneath our feet repeatedly," she said.
Smith says he believes the year has been a success, though he concedes that he did not expect such fierce opposition to some of his plans or that teacher morale would plummet to such a degree.
"I'm very confident in the course we've taken," Smith said. "If we can get our teacher morale back, then we're in a good place."
Smith, 53, a native of Madison, Wis., and one of the nation's best-known educators, has experienced more intense scrutiny than most superintendents during his short tenure here.
Courted by Anne Arundel County with a $197,000 salary - the highest of any schools chief in the region - he arrived July 1 of last year with fanfare and an armload of national awards for his work leading Charlotte, N.C., schools for six years.
"I knew ... we'd go through a tumultuous time in the first year," said former school board member Carlesa Finney, who voted to hire Smith. "I think he's learned we're going to have to do some things, proactively, to help the public understand the process."
Tall and lanky, with a voice that goes from soft during one-on-one conversations to booming when he's talking to a large crowd about kids and their potential, Smith has come a long way from being the floppy-haired new kid on the block.
One morning last week, the superintendent took a break from a typical 12-hour workday to reflect on his whirlwind journey.
He spent his first weeks scouring the county to learn about the schools and identify weak areas. He pored over academic and demographic data, chatted with employees and visited church leaders, parents and other community members.
He listened to teachers talk of being frustrated because they worked hard but weren't getting results and to parents complain about inequities between schools in a racially and economically diverse county.
In response, Smith published a list of specific goals he wanted to achieve in his four-year tenure - and rolled up his sleeves and got to work.
Like the head of a giant corporation, Smith has delegated responsibility for every aspect of his improvement plan to teams of administrators. He demands regular and frequent progress reports.
Though he acknowledges there have been no concrete results so far, he says they will come in time.
"There are signs of good progress here," he said, sitting in an armchair in his corner office on Riva Road, running an index finger down a list of the goals printed on a brochure.
He paused at one that said that four years from now, 45 percent of eighth-graders would pass algebra. Next fall's enrollment in eighth-grade algebra - 35 percent - has nearly doubled from the school year that just ended. "It signals a bit of a culture shift," Smith said.