Todd Nichols has never been a teacher before. Not in the real world, anyway. The 24-year-old graduated more than a year ago from Bloomsburg University in Pennsylvania with a degree in education, but he has been working in day care ever since.

Until now. Nichols will launch his teaching career Monday at William Paca Elementary School in Landover, where he'll be in charge of a third-grade class.

"I'm willing to go in and do the best I can," Nichols said. "They said they'd help me and be supportive. The first year is always rough. Just moving and starting the school year so fast, it's overwhelming. I'm excited but scared at the same time. I just want to start and get it over with."

Indeed, this career move might turn out to be a bigger challenge than Nichols imagined. As one of more than 1,200 teachers who are new to Prince George's County, Nichols is being counted on by school officials to help turn around the troubled 133,000-student school system.

But if recent history is a gauge, Nichols may not last long. Many of those who departed the system last year didn't retire but left for more pay and better opportunities in other school districts.

At William Paca alone, 16 teachers left the school this summer. Principal Michael Koss said there are many factors that led to the exodus--some teachers went on maternity leave, others returned home to other states--but he acknowledges that it is difficult to keep teachers in the county.

"All of the things build up, and the money [discrepancy] forces them to make other decisions," Koss said. "I lost my best teachers to other school systems."

Nichols said that he is aware of some of those issues but that he's not discouraged. Although he is white and grew up in a predominantly white suburban town, he said he looks forward to working with the largely black student population at William Paca, which is in a more urban area than he's used to.

Nichols toured another school in a more affluent area of Prince George's but said he preferred the environment at William Paca. He said he hopes to make a difference at a school where about half of the 800 students are eligible for free or reduced-price lunch and average scores on the Maryland School Performance Assessment Program tests generally fall below the state average.

"When I was in [college], they trained us to help us deal with it," he said. "We had to take a multicultural class which showed us how to work with children of different backgrounds and low incomes, and helped us recognize the different settings you would be facing."

And he has some built-in support. The school had so many jobs open that recruiters quickly persuaded Nichols's good buddy, William Wright, and his fiancee's cousin, Brenda Boyer, to accept teaching jobs there as well.

Nichols said they all abide by the same philosophy. "A child is a child who deserves to be taught," he said, "no matter what."

CAPTION: Prince George's County teacher Todd Nichols signed the commitment to excellence poster at William Paca Elementary School after an orientation meeting for new teachers.