The push to increase the number of rigorous classes offered to county high school students got a big boost last week when the Anne Arundel school board voted unanimously to support this "cornerstone" of the superintendent's vision for the school system.

"The students who do well in Advanced Placement are not just very, very bright kids," Superintendent Eric J. Smith told the board. "We'd like to start challenging some kids" who wouldn't otherwise see themselves as AP material.

Smith added that he hoped to begin offering the challenge "as early as next fall."

With only 29.5 percent of high school seniors in the county -- or 1,339 total -- taking at least one AP class, and with only 5.2 percent of those students taking five or more classes, Smith has his work cut out for him.

AP classes have, in the past, been courses open only to students who write essays or get teacher recommendations. For the most part, only the smartest and hardest-working college-bound students sign up to take them. Smith has insisted that a signature element of his tenure will be opening up AP opportunities to all students -- including poor students, black and Hispanic students and students who perform in the middle of the pack.

When the subject was first broached, school board Vice President Carlesa R. Finney worried that Smith was moving too fast. "I would be very interested," she said, "in seeing a timeline -- maybe a two-year timeline."

Smith replied, "The question is: What group of students do you want to bring the benefit to? Is it important to bring more rigor to Anne Arundel County high schools this fall, or can we delay a year?"

Finney added that she was concerned about funding the new course offerings, which would be published in December in the 2003-04 course catalogue. What if the county didn't fund the schools' budget request? What if the school system offered more advanced classes and students signed up for them, but the county didn't fund that part of the budget?

Then those students would have to be told that they can't take the AP classes for which they had registered, Smith replied.

"You first have to establish the high standard, and you work toward that extremely high standard," he said.

Added board member Paul G. Rudolph, "We need to go ahead with this. . . . If we don't get all the money we need, it doesn't mean we just stick our head in the sand and stop."

Smith has vowed that within the next five years, 40 percent of high school seniors will take at least one AP course. And while he is determined to make more courses available to more students, he also wants to bring the high schools' AP offerings more in line with the College Board's "AP Certified High Schools," which means, among other things, that at least 17 AP classes are offered -- many more than most Anne Arundel high schools currently offer.

Additionally, high schools have different levels of college-level achievement.

At Annapolis, Broadneck, Chesapeake and South River high schools, more than 30 percent of seniors have taken at least one AP course. At Severna Park High, that number is 51 percent.

At Glen Burnie, Meade, North County and Northeast high schools, however, fewer than 20 percent of seniors have completed an AP course.

Smith wants to even out those inequities. "Build it, and they will come," he told the board. "I have yet to find kids who won't step up to the challenge."

In the end, the board appeared to agree with him.

Finney seconded the motion, essentially acknowledging that the school board and the superintendent are ideologically on the same page.

As the vote supporting Smith was taken, school board President Michael J. McNelly intoned, "Let it be noted -- and, more importantly, unanimously noted" -- that Anne Arundel's board of education has heartily endorsed Smith's vision.