When the doors opened last week at Annapolis High School for the first day of classes, clear backpacks were no longer mandatory. It was one of the most visible signs that, with Donald R. Lilley in the principal's office, the leadership controversy that roiled the school for much of last year may finally be over.
"I'm allowing students to have the backpacks of their choice," Lilley said in an interview.
A small thing, perhaps, but Lilley has rescinded one of his predecessor's more divisive policies. Lilley described his decision as a result of "give and take" with students.
Lilley, 51, was plucked in March from the principal's post at Annapolis Middle School to replace Principal Deborah Hall Williams, who was transferred to the school system's main office.
Williams had been appointed to address academic and disciplinary problems at the high school, but her leadership generated months of emotional debate that pitted middle-class white parents against black community leaders. When Williams, who is black, was removed from her post, less than a year after she arrived, Superintendent Eric J. Smith said she had not done enough to ensure the safety of her students or gain the support of staff members and parents.
Lilley, who is also black, has since met with parents, student leaders, teachers, cafeteria workers -- every group with a stake in the future of the 1,700-student school. In addition, he said, he plans to discuss most policy changes with the leadership of the student government organization.
"I've found in working with students, it's about building that relationship early," he said.
Shortly after school started last year, dozens of students came to school one day dressed in orange as a protest against the "jail-like" atmosphere that they said Williams had created. Lilley says he, too, is a strict disciplinarian -- so much so, he says, that students sometimes ask if he has a military background.
Food is banned in the hallways this year. Students leaving during the day will do so through a single exit. No headphones are permitted in school. And teachers and other school employees are required to wear identification badges around their necks when in the building.
Smith said he gave Lilley a free hand in individual policy decisions, even on the matter of clear backpacks, which Williams had required as a means of preventing students from concealing weapons.
"With Don and all the principals, I give them the overall charge, and I really expect them to work out the specifics in terms of how to get the goals accomplished," Smith said.
In Lilley's case, the goals were to narrow Annapolis's much-discussed achievement gap and improve school safety and the general mood of the school. This year, Smith said, there is "a high level of energy at Annapolis High School, a very positive outlook among students, faculty and parents."
Williams blazed into Annapolis High in August 2003, determined to crack down on disciplinary problems and put all students on the same high-achieving track.
She instituted Saturday detention, required students to use the see-through backpacks and warned them that they would be punished if they were late to class or dressed inappropriately.
Almost immediately, a predominantly white group of parents bristled at her rigid style. They rallied to have her ousted, setting up a Web site, Saveannapolishigh.com, to publicize their complaints.
Just as fervently, dozens of Annapolis's black church and civic leaders rallied to support her. They flooded an Annapolis City Council hearing last year in support of a resolution backing Williams.
Tracey Hess, who was among the group of parents opposed to Williams, said she had planned to put her two children in another school this year -- until she met with Lilley soon after his arrival.
"He made himself available for a meeting right away," Hess said. "He was very warm, open, friendly, and he asked me to stop by any time I had any questions."
Lilley, she said, has reached out to the very groups that Williams polarized, and those groups "concur that he's doing things in a way that will move Annapolis High School toward being a safe and exciting environment."
One of Williams's supporters, Carl O. Snowden, said the faculty at the school has changed "radically" since last year's controversy. Snowden said Lilley finds himself in a different environment.
"It's not like Don Lilley's coming into the same school this year with the same faculty members," said Snowden, a special assistant to County Executive Janet S. Owens and an NAACP member. "He still has challenges facing him, but I think in terms of the support he will be getting from the African American community, I don't think it'll be diminished at all."
Count also among Lilley's supporters Sean Bukowski, 16, the president of the Student Government Association.
"I think people are relieved that we have a new principal," he said, "and I think most people have gotten to like him."
Bukowski said that Lilley seemed eager for input from the SGA officers, and that he "made it known that he was running rules and changes by the students to hear what we had to say."
Still, Lilley says, students won't be running the school. He'll tell them about policy changes. He'll try to explain the reasoning behind those changes.
"If they agree, we'll move forward," he said, several days before school began. "If they don't, we'll do it anyway."