Daric V. Jackson is greeting students in the lobby of Woodlawn High when a mother and daughter approach.
"She had behavioral issues last year, but not this year because you're here," says the mother, Carrie Tucker, as she introduces herself and her daughter, LaTevia Carroll, to the new principal. "I heard you're not going to take anything from anyone. I heard you are the man to get the job done."
That's just what Jackson wants to hear as he embarks on one of the toughest assignments in the Baltimore County school district. It's up to him to rid Woodlawn of its reputation as a hangout with lax academics, to prove that its 2,000 students are as smart and capable as anyone, and to see them on to college.
"I really felt that my mission was to come here and help Woodlawn High School," said Jackson, calm, soft-spoken and dressed in a suit.
Of the four western Baltimore County high schools where black student enrollment exceeds 90 percent, Woodlawn serves the least affluent neighborhoods. If Jackson can lead the school to close its achievement gap, Superintendent Joe A. Hairston says, it will be a victory for minority students everywhere.
Woodlawn has long struggled to retain top students, while its engineering magnet program, established to attract talented students from elsewhere, has typically been underused.
In April, a melee erupted during a ninth-grade assembly on anger management, leading to the arrest of a student and her mother and 11 suspensions.
Though the Woodlawn community has put its hopes in new principals before, Hairston is one of many who believe Jackson can deliver. Early signs are promising.
Jackson tells of going to a cafe across the street from the school one recent morning to round up a few students cutting class. He said the owner, used to serving many more teenagers during the school day, told him she will lose thousands of dollars this year if students continue to stay on campus as they have these past few weeks.
The youngest of seven children - his twin brother is 11 minutes older - Jackson grew up in Newport News, Va., playing piano in his father's church. He served for six years in the Army National Guard and worked as a music teacher in Howard County and elsewhere.
He comes to Baltimore County from San Jose, Calif., where he was last a high school assistant principal. With two young children, he and his wife wanted to be closer to their families, his still in Virginia and hers in New Jersey.
Jackson was hired to be an assistant principal at Woodlawn, serving under another recruit from the San Jose area. But in early July, that man decided to stay in California to finish a doctoral program, and the top job fell to Jackson.
"I've been moving 110 miles per hour ever since," he said.
During the summer, he spent a few days a week answering phones and handling student registrations and schedule changes. He spent weekends walking the neighborhoods the school serves, introducing himself to business owners and appealing for their support. He sent letters to parents and held meet-and-greets for staff and the community.
Hiring 33 teachers
A major job was hiring 33 new teachers. He said he was looking not just for credentials but a desire to be at Woodlawn.
Jackson clearly wants to be there. He turned down a job at a high-performing school in an affluent Northern Virginia neighborhood to come.
His strategy for change is one of tough love.
At 37 (print that, he says, so parents will stop asking his age), Jackson has boyish looks and a youthful persona to which kids can relate. He works out after school with the football team and plans to do so with the basketball team as well.
"You can change the mood of kids just by speaking to them," he says after chatting with some in the hall between classes. "Some of them aren't used to adults saying, `Good morning. How are you?'"
At the same time, Jackson is letting students know he means business.
Enforcing dress code
He is enforcing the dress code, calling parents whenever a student exposes a midriff or wears a T-shirt with profanity printed on it. He is conducting frequent "hall sweeps," asking teachers to lock their classroom doors after the bell rings and requiring anyone left in the hall to report to the cafeteria to sign in as tardy.
During an interview in his office, Jackson leapt up from his desk to chase after a boy he saw smoking outside.
He picks up trash as he walks through the halls. He and an assistant principal are offering their parking spaces to teachers doing exceptional work. He is hoping to sell parents on the idea of uniforms for next school year.
He arrives at school between 5:30 a.m. and 5:45 a.m. to respond to e-mails, and he makes it a point to visit at least five classrooms a day.
A half-dozen students on campus were stopped and asked whether Woodlawn is different this year. Each said yes, and had the same answer why.
"Last year, you could walk out the front door. Now you can't do that," said Derek Porter, a junior. He added with a grin, "Not that I tried."
After her mother finished introducing her to Jackson, LaTevia Carroll, also a junior, said far fewer students are roaming the halls this year.
"Good," her mother chimed in. "That's what this school needed."