The first public high school in the county marked its centennial last weekend with birthday cake, games, face painting, football, barbecue . . . and lots of history.

Nowadays, public high schools are generally taken for granted. But until 1899, none existed in Prince George's County. Then Laurel opened its doors. Its first graduating class had but a handful of students.

The school today has nearly 2,000 students. It has changed dramatically in other ways, too, especially in recent years, as the student population has become more diverse--economically, ethnically, academically. Seven elementary and two middle schools send their students to Laurel High, which since 1965 has been housed in a sprawling structure at 8000 Cherry Lane, just west of Route 1.

"It is a very strong comprehensive school which prides itself on the richness of its diversity," said Dean Suzanne Maxey, who oversees Laurel's day-to-day operations. "We have students in subsidized housing and students who live in $400,000 houses."

Today, Laurel has a university high school magnet program with advanced placement courses, an international baccalaureate program, separate special education classes for more than 200 students and English-as-a-second-language classes for 45. At the same time, it has a technical academy, offering courses in cosmetology, auto mechanics and nursing.

Laurel has the highest average attendance of high schools in the county, 94 percent, and it ranks among the top three in test scores, Maxey said.

There is schoolwide Internet access and "distance learning" classes that allow students to take courses given at other schools, and vice versa.

"We have a wonderful band, an internally recognized school newspaper," said Maxey, who's been at Laurel as teacher and administrator since 1988. "And the chorus will knock your socks off."

Though the school's address has changed, Laurel High's original building still stands, at Montgomery and Eighth streets, with its two additions, built in 1933-34 and 1947, housing the Laurel Boys & Girls Club and the Edward Phelps Senior Citizens Center.

Edward Phelps was a seven-term mayor of Laurel and a leading local merchant who helped make the high school a reality.

But first it took an act of the Maryland General Assembly in 1898 to launch Laurel High. The act authorized Prince George's commissioners to sell bonds for the school's construction. The bond sales yielded $8,813, but $2,000 more was needed.

That's where Phelps came in. He raised the money from residents of the community, which was then in transition from mill town to railroad suburb.

When the low bidder failed to post a bond and backed out of the contract, Phelps, according to the Laurel centennial souvenir booklet, "assumed the risk of putting up the school at the low bid price and lost $1,000 of his own money." Then, the blizzard of Feb. 12, 1899, caused the fresh wall plaster to freeze and crumble.

Roger I. Manning was the first principal. The school had three teachers. By 1904, it had grown to 59 students and four teachers. The first commencement was held June 18, 1900; all five graduates were women.

In 1900, only 29,898 people lived in the county, with a total school population of 4,659, of whom 265 were above sixth grade.

As was the way in this Southern county at the turn of the century, the new high school was for whites only. It would take another 24 years for the first "colored high school"--Frederick Douglass High in Upper Marlboro--to open, in 1923.

During World War II, the cupola on top of the old Laurel high school served as an observation post for civilian spotters, organized by the American Legion, looking for enemy planes.

No students graduated in 1949 from Laurel and most other county high schools, as a result of the decision in 1946 to extend high school through 12th grade. Previously, students graduated after 11th grade, a common practice throughout the South.

The county was smaller then, so schools drew from a wider area--without busing. Joe Robison, a 1952 graduate and Laurel mayor from 1990 to 1994, remembers when the school served students from Beltsville to Bowie and included some from nearby Howard and Anne Arundel counties.

His graduating class had just 60 students. "There weren't that many boys," he recalled, so just about anyone who went out for sports made the first team.

"There's more people in Laurel High School today than there was in the whole town when I graduated," he said. The municipality has about 25,000 residents, but the Laurel postal address includes 100,000 people in four counties, he said.

Robison recalled that black Laurel residents in those days had to travel to Lakeland, in College Park, to attend high school. In 1972, blacks made up 9 percent of the Laurel High School population. Today, 61 percent of the school's 1,997 students are African American, 28 percent white and 11 percent other.

CAPTION: Above, Debbie Shearer, left, and Brenda Kearns, both of Laurel, volunteered to cut the official birthday cake at Laurel High School's centennial celebration Saturday. At left, Bradley Smith, 4, of Laurel, joins the festivities. His mother, Kelly Smith, graduated from Laurel in 1977.