Say what you want about Alvin Thornton, he has never feared marching to the front line of battle for Prince George's County.
For the past seven years, he has fought from his post on the Prince George's County Board of Education. In his three different terms as chairman of the board, he has reasoned, cajoled, argued and sometimes even preached to colleagues, parents and fellow politicians alike. But he has been a consummate professional, ever raising the level of debate with insightful arguments on important education issues in the county.
Last week, Thornton stepped down from the school board to become chairman of a state commission that will examine whether money for schools is being handed out across the state in an equitable way.
He should know that his presence on the board will be missed.
Though Thornton has spent the past several years as part of the educational establishment, he started his local political career by agitating from the outside as a political science professor who strongly believed he could use his skills to make a difference in the new place he called home.
That was back in 1971, when Greenbelt became a convenient midpoint for Thornton, who was teaching at Morgan State University in Baltimore, and his wife, Annette, who still teaches in Washington.
Former school board member Frederick Hutchinson, who works in the school system's research and evaluation office, was one of Thornton's students at Morgan State in the mid-1970s.
"He was more instrumental than anyone in showing us how we could take our training as political scientists and use it to benefit our community," said Hutchinson, who graduated from Morgan State in 1977.
Former students, such as Hutchinson and Dennis Smith, director of the county's minority business office, eventually brought their talents to Prince George's.
Thornton moved to Suitland and on to Howard University, where he serves as chairman of the political science department.
At Howard, he has influenced the political careers of many students, such as Del. Rushern L. Baker III (D-Cheverly), now chairman of the Prince George's delegation in the Maryland House of Delegates. Baker represents a district created in 1990 when Thornton served as chairman of a committee that helped redraw legislative districts to make it easier for African Americans to get elected to public office.
"He was one of those people that as students, those of us who considered ourselves progressive or radical, would quote," Baker recalled.
Outside the classroom, Thornton immersed himself in county politics, ultimately helping to crack the old Democratic political machine once ruled by powerful white men. As a parent, he was active in the PTAs at the elementary, middle and high schools of his two daughters, now 22 and 26.
By the mid-1980s, white children had fled the schools in droves, and system officials found themselves in court a second time under a federal order to desegregate.
Thornton became chairman of a citizens group, called the Ad Hoc Committee on Quality Education in Prince George's County, which met in the evenings and produced a 41-page report outlining the community's recommendations. The county's magnet programs came out of that effort.
"It was our way of coming together to make sure we had our voice known as the school system went back to court," Thornton said. "It was just beautiful. That was the way we did things in those days."
In 1984 and 1986, Thornton helped convene all-day strategy sessions at Bowie State University for African Americans eager to translate their growing numbers in the county into political power.
On the school board, Thornton pushed to implement a multicultural education program and played a major role in drafting the court-approved agreement to end mandatory busing, return children to community schools and enhance academic programs. And he has been a consistent voice for the growing number of poor children in the schools.
The challenges ahead, he said, are based less on race than on issues of class and economics.
"The question for us is will we become as elite as any group or will we advocate for a type of change that will advance the segment of our community that's still left out," Thornton said, challenging the county's black middle class. "We are what we used to fight against."
But one cannot be as active as Thornton without making political enemies or generating critics. Some local and state politicians say Thornton ultimately became part of the school system's problem. They say he often made excuses for poor performance and mismanagement and failed to produce meaningful academic reforms.
When school officials were summoned to Annapolis last year to respond to an independent audit critical of its operations, then-Superintendent Jerome Clark kept quiet as Thornton sparred verbally with state officials.
It is difficult to say whether the criticism is correct. The county's performance on the Maryland School Performance Assessment Program has been consistently poor. But it would be a mistake to use that as the sole gauge of Thornton's effectiveness.
Long before MSPAP, long before African Americans became the majority in Prince George's, long before they rose to positions of prominence in the school system and county and state government, Thornton was at the forefront of the battles that mattered. He clearly is a dedicated public servant who took the risk of taking a stand and worked to make a difference.
As he steps onto a new field to confront one of the most important issues facing education in the state, he is marching to the front line of battle again.
To comment or suggest a story idea, feel free to write me at 14402 Old Mill Rd., Suite 201, Upper Marlboro, Md., 20772; send me an e-mail at frazierL@washpost.com; or call me at 301-952-2083.
CAPTION: Alvin Thornton (Suitland) has announced he is stepping down as chairman of the school board.