Paul L. Vance faced a crossroads two decades ago: continue a fledgling career in politics or return to the field of education?

After helping coordinate Jimmy Carter's 1976 presidential campaign in Maryland, he pondered returning to the career path that had taken him from teacher to principal in Philadelphia and then on to deputy school superintendent in Baltimore.

He chose education, but as he moved into the upper echelons of that profession, his political skills got regular exercise.

That career as an educator formally came to a close June 30, the last day of his contract as Montgomery County superintendent of schools. Vance, though, agreed to stay on until his successor, North Carolina educator Jerry Weast, steps in.

Vance, 68, has been praised in his departing days for keeping a school system with a national profile from losing ground during years of tight budgets, fast growth and demographic upheaval. At the same time, he has been called a skillful politician, a consensus-builder who ensured that Montgomery's largely white establishment continued to support a school system in which minority students soon will occupy the majority of classroom seats.

"He was the right person at the right time," said Reginald M. Felton (Northeastern County), the county's school board president. "He understood what was needed to maintain a quality education system in order to preclude both the white flight and economic flight that has taken place in other school districts that have gone through similar changes."

There were 107,000 students in the county's 174 schools when Vance took over the top job in 1991. He will leave behind a system of 129,000 students in 185 schools. Most of the growth has been among African American, Asian American and Latino students. Although the number of white students grew slightly, they now account for less than 52 percent of enrollment, compared with 61 percent eight years ago. Economic diversity increased as well: During this past school year, nearly 30,000 of the county's students qualified for subsidized lunches, twice as many as in 1991.

During that same time, average SAT scores in the county remained high--the highest in Maryland and second only to Fairfax County in the Washington region last year--even as the pool of students taking the test got bigger. The dropout rate remained at 2 percent, and the rate of students going on to college increased from 86 to 89 percent.

Still, there is a palpable feeling that the time is ripe for change. Some believe the school system has been slow to enact needed reforms.

"When he first arrived, the bottom fell out of the economy, and he was a tremendously effective, calming presence during that time," said John Hoven, a parent activist who is co-president of the Gifted and Talented Association of Montgomery County. "Since then, however, this has become a status quo system."

The system faces considerable challenges.

Class sizes are uncomfortably large, despite recent limited efforts to reduce them.

The number of crowded schools doubled under Vance's tenure, even with the school construction boom of recent years.

Parents have expressed unease about academic standards and about safety.

Perhaps most vexing of all, the system has not been able to make a meaningful dent in the gap between the academic performance of African American and Latino students and their Asian American and white counterparts--an issue especially critical to a county rapidly becoming more diverse.

Vance said he considers the failure to close this gap the biggest disappointment of his tenure. It is a frustration shared by educators across the country.

"We are all struggling with that," said Howard County Superintendent Michael E. Hickey, the Washington area's longest-serving superintendent. "I know it's been my biggest frustration. The only places where the gap doesn't exist is where there's only one ethnic group."

Vance, the son of a sanitation worker who grew up in South Philadelphia, went into teaching largely because of a college scholarship offer from the state of Pennsylvania, which wanted to address a teacher shortage.

Teaching was "a good match," he recalled in an interview in his Rockville office.

After college, he taught for a few years before becoming principal in 1965 of a school in an all-white, working-class section of Philadelphia. His experience there helped shape the skills he later would use in Montgomery County.

He integrated the teaching staff and successfully sought funding for a new school building, even though some community leaders who opposed it, including the head of the local John Birch Society, feared it would lead to the school's integration. Vance still recalls how he got them to change their minds.

He took the community leaders to see some of the new school buildings going up in other parts of Philadelphia.

"I must have scared them half to death because I took them to North Philadelphia, the so-called black ghetto," he said with a smile. "And then, my punch line was . . . 'Whose money do you think is paying for these new schools?' "

About a month later, a new school building was approved.

That non-confrontational, yet politically shrewd, public style has been Vance's method of leadership in Montgomery County. And the need for it was reinforced during his days as the number two school official in Baltimore, where he watched his boss, Superintendent Roland N. Patterson, wage very public losing battles with elected officials.

"It taught me the importance of working behind the scenes, keeping your big mouth out of it and not putting a big target on your back," he said.

Vance has been careful to avoid waging controversial public battles in Montgomery County. He describes himself as "cautious" and "slow-moving" and believes that has helped keep the focus on education.

"The superintendent has to have a good knowledge of Montgomery County politics, without becoming a politician," he said.

Ever since his days as associate superintendent responsible for schools in the Silver Spring area, Vance has worked to get to know members of the community.

"He learned Montgomery County," said County Council member Marilyn Praisner (D-Eastern County), a PTA mother handpicked by Vance for his leadership team during his years as an associate superintendent for the Silver Spring area. "He really understands the gestalt of what goes on here, what pushes people's buttons and what doesn't."

Blair Lee IV, a developer and political commentator, remembers his first meeting with Vance years ago at a Bob's Big Boy restaurant in Wheaton.

"That's when I began to get a feel that this guy had his head screwed on right," Lee said.

For example, Lee said, Vance understood that parents had to feel county schools were safe in order for the system to hold off a wave of middle-class flight.

In his first budget proposal, in one of the leanest years of his two terms, Vance made sure that school security was spared the scalpel. Earlier this month, he proposed adding funds to put security cameras in all high schools, citing the need to maintain public confidence in the safety of schools.

"He's not a dreamer; he's a politician, a practical man," Lee said. "He kept the system together, and that didn't take as much vision as it did common sense."

Vance's tenure has overlapped with Montgomery County's effort to increase the academic performance of all students, including those who traditionally have under-achieved.

Called "Success for Every Student," the 1992 initiative sets a variety of outcome measures, and results are tracked for each racial group.

The results have been mixed. Since the plan was put in place, for example, the percentage of ninth-graders completing Algebra I has risen for all racial groups. Yet the proportion of black and Latino students completing the course still lags far behind that of whites and Asian Americans. The gap also is there for high school students enrolled in honors courses and SAT scores, and it also is reflected by the results of ninth-grade writing tests.

Vance says the fact that more students of all races are taking honors courses or completing Algebra I is a sign that the system is moving in the right direction.

"Are we there yet? Of course not. But we're on our way. Initially, folks were just mouthing 'Success for Every Student.' You talk to them now and you hear conviction," he said.

Yet there is also a belief that the system needs to do more to improve academic standards. This spring, for example, data released by the school system revealed wide disparities in the way the countywide Algebra I exam is graded from school to school.

"There is a perception that the system is geared toward under-achieving students. I think that's an important part of what we do, and I'm absolutely committed to that," said Board of Education member Mona M. Signer (Rockville-Potomac), "but I'm looking to raise the bar for all students."

"Success for Every Student has basically been an average success," said Daniel Parr, a Blair High School PTA activist. Parr, who ran unsuccessfully for the school board last year, said he believes that Vance has continued to foster a culture of self-preservation that was needed during the tough fiscal times of his first term but that is now dragging the system down.

"We need a system that confronts issues and deals with them," Parr said. "Paul Vance has avoided confrontation."

Vance believes that his biggest challenge has been helping the school system and the county adapt to increasing diversity. And there are many who agree with him.

"It hasn't been easy for Montgomery County to adapt itself to all these changes. It makes some people uncomfortable," said Blair G. Ewing, a Democrat elected at large to the County Council who served for 22 years on the Board of Education. "He was one who could help people to understand that this wasn't going to be the end of the world. That there is something that people from other cultures bring to the school system that is exciting and positive."

Vance believes the time is ripe for reform.

"The table is set," he said. "That wasn't always the case. We have a culture now, an environment, where we can try radical stuff. The new superintendent coming in here will see that opportunity."

The challenges for his successor will, in many ways, be the same ones Vance tackled: maintaining public confidence and academic quality in a school system that is continuing to change rapidly.

"Parents have got to continue to believe that our schools are on a world-class level," he said.

Under Vance's Tenure

During Superintendent Paul L. Vance's eight years of service, the Montgomery County school system has grown by more than 20,000 students and 11 schools.

1991 1998

Total enrollment 107,339 128,577

Black 17.6% 21.1%

Asian 12.1% 12.8%

Hispanic 9.5% 13.9%

White 60.6% 51.9%

1991 1998

Number of schools 174 185

Schools over capacity 35 76

Number of teachers 5,827 7,832

Operating budget $703 million $1 billion

Students receiving subsidized meals 15,776 29,503

Number of ESOL students 6,370 7,809

Students who graduate on time 99% 99%

Students who go on to college 86% 89%

1991 1998

Average SAT scores (countywide) 1080 1092

Black 909 919

Asian 1107 1134

Hispanic 1024 995

White 1118 1137

SOURCE: Montgomery County Public Schools

CAPTION: Vance