Maybe the pace of handing out diplomas was this frenetic in years past, but the graduating seniors at Annapolis High School seemed in a particular hurry to put their final year behind them.
On its graduation day, the Class of 2004 was in and out of the Show Place Arena in Upper Marlboro within an hour. The rapid-fire ceremony last week made little mention of what the class valedictorian acknowledged had been a turbulent year for the racially and economically mixed school.
"We had a new schedule, new rules for backpacks, and not one but two new principals," said Anna Johnson, the valedictorian, who will be going to Yale University in the fall. "Yet we continue to learn."
Johnson treaded lightly on a day for celebration, not controversy. Yet her brief summary touched on some of the issues that made life interesting -- and "very stressful," according to junior Cara Santin -- for the school's 1,500 students, whose former principal recently filed a racial discrimination lawsuit against the Anne Arundel County school system over her forced transfer to another job.
Since arriving in Anne Arundel two years ago, Superintendent Eric J. Smith has made it his mission to close the achievement gap between the county's best students, who are often white and wealthy, and its lowest-performing, who are often black and poor. Nowhere was this disparity more glaring than at Annapolis High; white students averaged 1094 on the SAT last year -- well above the national average of 1026 -- while black students averaged 897.
To boost students' time spent in reading and math classes across the county, Smith abolished the familiar seven-period school day and introduced a block schedule more similar to a college's longer classes. That move caused angst among some students and parents.
But at Annapolis High, it was just the beginning. Smith began the school year by hiring Deborah Hall Williams, a principal with an aggressive style who had fierce supporters and detractors in Prince George's County, where she worked before moving to Anne Arundel. Early in her tenure, Williams decreed that students would have to carry their books in see-through backpacks, a rule aimed at keeping students from carrying weapons to school. She also gave unruly students Saturday detention, and warned that they would get in trouble for being late to class or dressing inappropriately.
The caution that greeted Williams's arrival quickly turned to anger, at least among a group of mostly white parents who loudly opposed the black principal. Another vocal group, of black community leaders, closed ranks in Williams's defense.
In March, Smith transferred Williams to a job in the school system's central office, saying that fights among Annapolis High students had increased and that she hadn't done enough to build support among students and faculty. She filed suit against Smith and the school board this month.
Among the school's students interviewed last week, opinions of Williams ranged widely -- from graduating senior Brandon Hardesty, who described her as "completely overbearing," to his classmate Tim Boston, who said, "She was the best thing that happened to this school."
Both students played minor roles in the fight that raged among parents, teachers and administrators during Williams's tenure. Hardesty, whose mother is the spokeswoman for Annapolis Mayor Ellen O. Moyer, was among a group of students who wore orange jumpsuits to school to protest what they described as a prison atmosphere under Williams. Boston testified before the Annapolis City Council in support of a resolution backing Williams. Both students said they plan to attend Anne Arundel Community College.
Between those extremes were students just trying to get through high school, a stage of life that is tough enough without adults squabbling. Most students interviewed said there didn't appear to be more fights in the halls this year than there had been in years past. And to many, the notion of a racial achievement gap was an abstract issue.
"She tried fixing that [gap], which I admire her for, but it just didn't work," said graduating senior John Julian.
His friend Daniel Hackner said, "You can't learn if you're unhappy."
Donald R. Lilley, whom Smith moved from Annapolis Middle School to replace Williams as principal, received high marks from white and black students interviewed. "His rules weren't as absurd," graduating senior Jasmine McKiver said of Lilley, who, like Williams, is black.
McKiver's classmate Terry Williams said he supported the new block schedule because it allowed him to earn more credits in his senior year. But for others, the new schedule, with its longer classes, was a recipe for boredom.
"The classes like geometry and science, where you sit in front of a chalkboard all day, it gets a little tiring," said Hugh Griffis, a freshman whose band played at the graduation party.
To the graduating seniors, embracing and taking pictures together after the ceremony, it didn't matter how much they learned, or what would happen to Annapolis High in the future: They were done.
"We have taken all that has been thrown our way in stride," Tim Wong, the class president, told his mates. "We are survivors."