To change the course of a large, unwieldy object headed in the wrong direction, sometimes you have to start small. Seemingly minor adjustments can lead to bigger, more important ones. Starting tomorrow evening, such a change will take place in the Prince George's County school system.

At the Board of Education meeting in Upper Marlboro, new School Superintendent Iris T. Metts will enter the conference room, walk to the dais and take a seat next to the board made up of nine members and one student.

To the untrained eye, this will mean nothing. But for those in the know, it's revolutionary. For the last four years, the superintendent has sat in front of board members, facing them almost in a subservient manner. Shortly after succeeding Jerome Clark on July 1, Metts asked board members if she could sit beside them.

The symbolism is unmistakable: Turning around the troubled 133,000-student school system will mean bridging divides and creating a partnership.

As the Metts era begins in earnest with the start of classes Monday, the new superintendent's ability to unify Prince George's County's various interest groups behind the school system and end the political bickering that has marked the last several years will go a long way in determining her success.

In the last year, there has been unprecedented debate about the school system's future. State leaders ordered an audit and created an oversight panel to monitor the county's school reform efforts; that panel repeatedly criticized the pace of those efforts. The county executive said he did not have enough faith in the system to grant its request for more money. And school board members and residents rallied to ward off a threatened takeover of the system by the state.

Metts, who came to the county after serving as Delaware's education secretary, steps into this fray shouldering the hopes of the community that she can make these volatile players work together--and make it pay off for the students.

"Her effectiveness as manager is critical. But her effectiveness as a political leader might be even more so," said County Council member Peter A. Shapiro (D-Brentwood). "It is incumbent upon her to play a role in bringing together all the stakeholders. All of the fighting you saw last year among the elected bodies is partly a result of fairly widespread lack of faith in the central administration."

Already Metts has sounded many of the trumpets that county and state leaders want to hear. She intends to improve the system's efficiency through better use of technology, increase accountability systemwide by tying pay raises to job performance, direct more resources to teachers and principals and engage parents and the business community through creative partnerships and mentoring programs.

If Metts accomplishes these goals, she said, it will lead to more trust between school officials and county and state leaders, more money and resources for the schools, and, ultimately, improved academic performance.

But it won't be easy. Prince George's ranks second-worst in the state on standardized exams and has the highest percentage of provisionally certified teachers. The county also must cope with a high proportion of students from low-income households, an increasing number of immigrants who have weak English skills and a smaller budget than systems of similar size. Prince George's schools have a budget of $876 million, compared with $1.1 billion for 127,000-student Montgomery County and $1.3 billion for 156,000-student Fairfax County.

The Prince George's schools also are still caught up in the throes of the end of 26 years of court-ordered mandatory busing to desegregate the schools, sending thousands of students back to schools in their neighborhoods. Meanwhile, three new schools will open in the fall, the first in the county's ambitious plan to build 13 to 26 over the next six years, to accommodate increased enrollment and create more neighborhood schools. As if these challenges weren't daunting enough, Metts will have to act quickly. The tensions have been running so high for so long that she will be given little room for error and will have to show results to public officials, her staff and the community anxious to begin to judge her success or failure. Metts is so focused on getting results that she even tied her contract to her performance; she'll receive a base salary of $160,000 a year and can make an additional $30,000 annually if she meets incentives in areas such as improving technology, hiring more certified teachers and improving test scores.

"I think it's workable as long as the honeymoon period lasts, but it will have to be done quickly," said school board member James E. Henderson (Seabrook) "I'm hoping it will last a year, but from what I know about this community, it will only last one semester. By January 1, people will begin to judge her."

Board Chairman Alvin Thornton (Suitland) said he believes that the bickering between school officials and county leaders has actually been helpful, leading to some clearer lines of authority that should make it easier for Metts to unite them.

"Thankfully, I think the structural sources of discord have been removed," he said, "and the superintendency can become what it should have been, what it was supposed to be all along--a de-politicized entity into which people can place their consensus about the best way to educate the children. And from what I've seen so far, Dr. Metts can make it easy for us to do that. I just hope it will last longer than the first 100 days."

In fact, Metts already is moving to put her mark on the system.

Her first major initiative was to turn a critical eye inward and reorganize the school system's central office staff, eliminating 10 percent of her staff--about 150 positions--with the philosophy that less is more: that fewer people doing more focused work can produce better results than a bloated staff with an undefined mission.

Some are hailing this move as a way to get more resources to the classrooms and revitalize a staff that has drawn criticism from auditors and some county officials, who have called it bloated and inefficient. Her direct approach has put teachers and administrators on notice.

"Change always brings with it excitement, and individuals are reenergized," said Susan DePlatchett, principal at Frederick Douglass High School in Upper Marlboro. "You look forward to it. People have to prove themselves again. That's what's exciting. You raise your own bar."

Yet with the changes, some resistance has followed. Metts's private proposals to return some central office administrators to schools where they would be asked to serve as principals or teachers has drawn fire from the administrators union.

"I did get an unsigned letter in the mail from people who seemed chagrined at the way she is upsetting the system and the central office," Henderson said. "Here again, she's damned if she does and damned if she doesn't. They're complaining she's not keeping a lot of institutional memory at the top. But if she had kept a lot on, she'd be accused of business as usual. You can't make everybody happy."

Metts said that while the changes may make some folks uncomfortable, ultimately her staff will be more responsive to teachers, leading to more job satisfaction in a county that is struggling to recruit and retain certified teachers.

"My first response was to be cynical and skeptical, but I'm mildly favorable to her now," said Patrick McCann, a teacher at Northwestern High School in Hyattsville. "She was right to go after the central bureaucracy. There was really an old-boy network there, and people were not held accountable. . . . But we all have a wait-and-see attitude. Will there be real changes in the classroom?"

Yes, there will, Metts said. Her vision is to put the school system on a track to become a leader in the 21st century by using technology to make it more efficient and save money and resources that can be redirected to the classroom.

It will take time, she said, but by computerizing accounting, teacher certification, transportation, supplies and other documents, employees throughout the system will get what they ask for more quickly.

She wants to give each teacher, principal and administrator a telephone, an e-mail account and Internet access. And she wants to use the Web to communicate more easily with parents, who have long complained that the school system does not sufficiently engage them as partners.

"I have an eye to refocus the vision of the central office to serve the children, teachers and principals," Metts told a group of parents recently. "Most of all, I want to be customer-friendly. From the superintendent to the school staff to the custodians, I will insist upon it from all the people in the system."

The school board and others say they want to help her make it happen.

"It behooves the superintendent and the board to do things in concert. We may as well. She's our selection," Henderson said. "When she does something wrong, the board is equally at fault. But if she succeeds, we can all bask in the same glow."

CAPTION: Kristie Minnis, an incoming freshman at Frederick Douglass High School, tours her new campus.