When a real estate agent showed Jeffrey Macris a house in west Annapolis, he advised him to look outside the city, where the public schools would be better. Most people would have taken the advice and moved somewhere else, but the U.S. Naval Academy history professor was incensed.
Macris and his wife, Jenn, wanted all the amenities of living in Annapolis and bought a house there anyway, then set out to turn around the schools for their young, growing family. This month, Macris was awarded the annual Comcast Parent Involvement Award for his success in leading a lobbying effort to improve two middle schools there.
Annapolis Middle School has improved remarkably in the past several years, according to school officials, and Wiley H. Bates Middle opened a visual and performing arts magnet program this year and has made steady improvements as well. Now middle- and upper-middle-class families from Severna Park and Crofton are considering sending their children to those schools.
The changes have come just in time, too.
Next year, John, the eldest of the Macrises' five children, will go to Bates.
"The notion that parents would be competing to get into Bates or Annapolis Middle would have been laughable five years ago," said Annapolis Mayor Joshua J. Cohen, who as an Anne Arundel County councilman worked with Macris.
But Macris doesn't like to take credit: "This is more than one person. It is an enormous amount of effort by dozens of people who came together under a single purpose."
Macris, 47, grew up in Crofton, became a Navy pilot and married a Californian. Fluent in Arabic, Macris did a stint in Bahrain, where he planned multinational military exercises, and then moved back to Maryland to take a job teaching at the Naval Academy.
To some extent, he was well prepared for this civilian mission, which required him to unify people under a single objective and then doggedly pursue that goal.
After digging through census files and testing data and talking to lots of people, Macris came to the conclusion that the middle class had abandoned the Annapolis schools a generation ago. Parents might be willing to send their students to elementary school there, but they moved out of town or sent their children to private schools for middle school.
"People are willing to self-tax themselves to the tune of $15,000 to $20,000 a year" because they didn't have confidence in the public schools, he said, referring to the cost of a private school education.
Macris said he began working with about 15 other parents, and they decided to focus on three goals: improving discipline, ensuring the teachers were qualified and adopting a rigorous academic program at each school.
The group first focused on reviving an effort to put an International Baccalaureate program called the Middle Years at Annapolis Middle. The idea had been considered before but was never funded. After lobbying the school board, the County Council and the county executive for a year, the parents were successful in getting the program funded. "It was an exercise in tenacity," Macris said. After a year of planning by staff, the first sixth-graders started with the program in the 2007-2008 school year.
Chris Truffer, director of school performance for Anne Arundel's Annapolis cluster of schools, said the IB program at Annapolis Middle is not for gifted students, as it is in the high schools. Instead, he said, the program tries to help raise the level of instruction for all students, including those in special education.
The parents' efforts came shortly before the arrival of Superintendent Kevin M. Maxwell, who wanted to improve the schools in part by adding magnet and signature programs like those now at Bates and Annapolis Middle.
In addition, the city started an Annapolis Education Commission to address school issues. Enrique Hernandez was just becoming a school board member at the time and was worried by the lack of involvement from Annapolis parents compared to the vocal parents in the wealthier parts of the county. He was happy to work with Macris and other parents on the Education Commission.
"If you are lacking the voice in the community, then it is much harder," Hernandez said. "The community was there supporting the same issues I was."
After the IB program started at Annapolis, the parent group focused its attention on getting an arts program at Bates.
Hernandez said he believes that the difference in Annapolis Middle is dramatic and that Bates is slowly improving. Annapolis Middle's test scores were strong enough to meet state standards last year, though Bates' weren't.
"We are attracting more diversity in the student population. We have finally cleaned up the perception that these [schools] aren't worth attending," he said.
One of the reasons the parent group was successful, Cohen said, was because of the professor's even-keeled, respectful personality and his ability to rally people around a cause without making himself the center of attention.
"When you are a legislator in public office," Cohen said, "you listen to thousands of people provide testimony … but some testimony is more compelling than others'. Jeff has his facts in a row. He is sincere and compelling."
But Macris sees it slightly differently. "There is no limit to what parents can get accomplished if they reach out to build bridges," he said.