He arrives on time despite awful traffic on Interstate 97, parks his dented Toyota in front of a roomy Millersville home and springs out, black binder at the ready.
It's a week before the start of school in Anne Arundel County, and Fatih Kandil, leader of one of the most academically successful schools in Maryland, is wrapping up his summer the way he always does: by being proactive.
Like other county principals, Kandil — director of the 330-student Chesapeake Science Point Public Charter School in Hanover — has been up to his eyebrows in staff meetings, bracing for the arrival of students Monday.
But he's the only one known to visit each of his middle school's students — at home — before classes resume.
"[This] lets everyone know how seriously we take education," he says, ringing the doorbell at the home of Kristofer Burkowski, a new sixth-grader, and his parents, Mark and Cindy.
It's part of the mind-set that has helped Kandil, 36, turn CSP from shaky experiment into growing educational gem.
Inside, at the family's kitchen table, he lays out his school's expectations for homework (2 1/2 hours a night), lost assignments (automatic zero) and accountability (parents can check a 24/7 database for up-to-the-minute grades). He invites questions, cracks a few jokes.
"I've never seen a principal who cares enough to come to your house and [set] expectations, not just for the child but also for his whole family," Mark Burkowski says.
Kristofer, 11, claims to welcome the biggest workload he has ever faced.
Kandil shakes everyone's hand, gathers up his papers and heads back to the old Camry. He has three more visits to go tonight. "If a [traditional] public school is like an established army, we're a highly motivated guerrilla force," he says. "We move quickly and use everything we've got."
When your school receives less than half the funding per pupil that traditional public schools do, you have to be willing to drive events. If Kandil didn't, CSP — one of just two charter schools in the county and 42 in the state — would never have earned the title of Maryland Charter School of the Year in 2009, its fifth year of existence.
Growing up in Adana, Turkey, Kandil didn't always have such a sense of direction. He was such a brilliant student, especially in the sciences, that he rarely had to push himself. He failed, in fact, to appreciate the talents of his teachers, whom he saw as a miserable lot.
"Whenever someone asked what I wanted to do in life, I said 'anything but teach,'" he recalls, laughing.
That changed in the ninth grade, Kandil says, when he encountered an educator who would have made a great model for chronically underfunded Chesapeake Science Point. Biology teacher Salih Teker made up in brilliance what he lacked in material.
"This man had a piece of chalk and a chalkboard, and nothing else," Kandil says. "Everything was stored in his brain. He didn't seem to be teaching at all. It was more like showing off."
Kandil's life plan soon took a different course.
After graduating from an Istanbul university with a biology degree, he turned down all-but-certain acceptance to medical school, opting instead to move to the United States to study molecular biology. When financial aid fell through, he remembered how Teker had moved him and his classmates. So he took a job teaching biology in the Milwaukee public school system.
"Right away, I loved working with kids," he says. He was promoted to assistant principal.
When Kandil read about a charter school in Cleveland that had become one of just six "blue-ribbon" charter schools in America, his ears perked up. Those schools encouraged innovation. When the Horizon Science Academy was looking for someone to start a satellite branch in Dayton, Ohio, in 2004, he applied for the job and got it.
In two years, he attracted 250 students to the place, an unlikely feat in a high-crime city where one-fourth of the students already were enrolled in charter schools. But in 2006, when Chesapeake Science Point was in the throes of its worst growing pains, the school board of a county he'd never heard of in Maryland came calling.
Back from the brink
On a steamy afternoon in late August, things seem quiet at Chesapeake Science Point, a low-lying brick building at the edge of a Hanover business park.
In the lobby, parent volunteers and administrative assistant June Calvert — known to all as Miss June — move papers and answer phones. A pile of new bus schedules lines a counter. And Kandil, half-formal in short sleeves and a necktie, comes and goes, greeting everyone he sees by name.