At the first school Patricia M. Richardson ever ran, tuition was a quarter.

The neighborhood kids would gather on the back porch of her parents' College Park home while the 12-year-old girl helped them with reading and math. The quarter paid for the juice.

From that precocious start, and the early conviction that she "just knew" she wanted to be a teacher, Richardson's career has been a steady accumulation of responsibility -- from elementary school teacher, to principal, to superintendent of the 16,000-student St. Mary's County public school system.

Richardson, 54, plans to resign as superintendent at the end of December -- after a little more than 32 years in the county system and eight years in the top job -- to head a graduate program in education at the University of Maryland.

Her new post will focus on leadership training for teachers and administrators. It will allow time for research and writing, a scarce commodity in the hectic schedule of a superintendent, she said. Richardson made the unexpected announcement Wednesday at a Board of Education meeting.

"I've always had a relationship with the University of Maryland," she said in an interview. "I wanted to go while I still loved my job and look forward to coming to work every day."

For school officials, the announcement came as a shock and mobilized the Board of Education to begin the process to find Richardson's replacement. The board will meet tomorrow with the executive director of the Maryland Association of Boards of Education to discuss the replacement process, said board Chairman Cathy Allen.

An interim superintendent will be appointed, Allen said, because the board is prevented by state regulations from formally appointing a new superintendent until July. No decision has been made about whether to look locally for Richardson's successor or conduct a nationwide search, she said.

"We are in the process of researching next steps," she said. "I think we're going to look for the best person for the job for the system."

Richardson was named interim superintendent in 1996 and took over officially the next year. School officials praised her work in cementing a five-year funding agreement with the county commissioners this year, making St. Mary's the first county in the state to commit in writing to the school budgets needed to make improvements envisioned by the state's "Bridge to Excellence" goals. She had organized monthly breakfast meetings at the Do Dah Deli in Leonardtown that "laid the groundwork" for the agreement, Allen said.

Richardson also oversaw the renovation and expansion of all three St. Mary's high schools, three elementary schools and a middle school along with improvements at the Dr. James A. Forrest Career and Technology Center and Margaret Brent Middle School.

"She has been a very dedicated leader, without question," said Salvatore L. Raspa, vice chairman of the school board. "She's done a great job in my opinion of bringing the school system to where it is today."

During her tenure, St. Mary's increased the number of Advanced Placement courses offered in the county's high schools from five to 21 and boosted AP enrollment from 170 to 1,371 students. Richardson said this expansion was an important achievement for her.

"That accomplishment has very directly impacted students," she said.

In the past, some community members have criticized the school system for not doing more to decrease the achievement gap between white and minority students and for not being more open to input from the public. Jan Emerson, the president of the county teachers union, said past contract negotiations have been marked by a "lack of respectful communication" between the board and the union.

Because of Richardson's experience as a teacher, Emerson said, "we had thought there would be a lot more collaboration than there turned out to be. It really had a negative impact lots of times on the teachers in the classroom."

Emerson and others said they hoped the board would conduct a nationwide search before selecting a new superintendent.

"That would bring us the very best candidate we could find. And we'll figure out how to fund it one way or another," said Clare Whitbeck, a community activist and school board candidate.

Richardson's career began in 1972 as a third-grade teacher at Piney Point Elementary School. After 10 years in the classroom, she became principal at Lettie Marshall Dent Elementary School in Mechanicsville. She is married with two children, who are elementary school teachers in St. Mary's. She said the stress of being a superintendent required sacrifices from her family.

"It is a 24-7 responsibility," she said. "There weren't a lot of long family vacations. There weren't a lot of vacations at all, actually."

Richardson's new job will take her back to her alma mater -- she received her bachelor's, master's and doctoral degrees in education at the University of Maryland. And back to College Park near her first school job, teaching on the porch for a quarter.

"It's kind of a coming home," she said.

Under Superintendent Patricia M. Richardson, shown riding a bus with students, enrollment in AP courses in St. Mary's increased from 170 to 1,371.