He delivered the message in his typically blunt style. Prince George's County schools chief Andre J. Hornsby told an audience of principals and PTA leaders this month that the school system had failed its 140,000 students by teaching a watered-down curriculum.
In the 15 months since his arrival, Hornsby reminded them, he had begun to change that. All ninth-graders are now required to learn physics and algebra, subjects the school system had allowed some to take as late as junior year. Full-day pre-kindergarten was introduced, and new textbooks had been handed out. Teachers in most grades would be giving quarterly tests to gauge their students' readiness for state exams in the spring.
The new curriculum, he told the audience, was "comparable to any private school in America."
Still, no one is rejoicing yet, not in a county where many of the more affluent and educated parents send their children to private schools despite their belief that the county's economic future depends on having better public schools.
Neighboring school systems in Anne Arundel, Charles and Montgomery counties continue to outperform Prince George's on state and national tests. SAT scores released last month showed that the county's college-bound teenagers scored below most of their peers across the state.
"He's cleared the brush around the trees. Now the challenge is how to make them grow," said state Del. Doyle L. Niemann (D-Prince George's).
From his first day in the $250,000-a-year job, Hornsby has shown he is willing to make bold changes, something his predecessors were leery of doing for fear of upsetting parents and unionized school employees. In little more than a year, he has replaced more than 80 of the system's 197 principals, picking each new leader himself.
"You should not have that high a turnover in your school system," said Doris Reed, executive director of the principals' union. "There's no institutional memory left."
Hornsby's response: "I needed new blood. I needed fresh thinking, new ideas."
As he begins his second year in Prince George's, the New Orleans-born Hornsby still has the self-assured, determined walk of a star football player, which he was in high school. Yet his confident stride conceals what he knows down deep -- there's a long way to go before he can declare victory in turning around one of the largest, most academically challenged and politically volatile school systems in the nation.
The 50-year-old administrator can point to test scores as one measure of improvement. The percentage of Prince George's third-graders who passed the reading portion of the Maryland School Assessments, a key series of exams, jumped from 39.4 percent last year to 55.3 percent this year. African American students showed a gain of nearly 16 percentage points on the English portion of the state's High School Assessment test.
He also has won praise for erasing an $82 million budget deficit he inherited -- by not filling hundreds of vacant staff positions and scaling back some programs, such as mediation to defuse fights among students. And he has cut down on problems with new accounting software purchased by his predecessor, Iris T. Metts, that left hundreds of employees without paychecks last school year.
"Many of the things he's done in one year would take other people five years to do," said school board Chairman Beatrice P. Tignor (Upper Marlboro).
But questions remain about Hornsby's leadership style. He has angered some County Council members by publicly disagreeing with them over how to ease school crowding; by 2006, there will be 7,000 more high school students than there are seats for them, according to estimates.
Hornsby believes the problem is so pressing that existing schools need to be expanded immediately. The majority of council members prefer moving ahead with building new campuses instead of expanding old ones.
In a meeting last May, the council voted to set up a task force to study other options. That meeting was tense. After the vote, Hornsby walked out as council member Douglas J.J. Peters (D-Bowie) was in mid-sentence. Hornsby later explained to reporters that he had a plane to catch, but he did not apologize publicly -- as some council members had asked him to do.
At his meeting with principals and PTA leaders this month, he gave no indication that he would back down from a fight. With some council members in the audience, Hornsby showed a seven-minute video, which included interviews with supporters of his high school expansion plan lamenting that politics had gotten in the way of sound decision-making.
He also circulated a survey asking audience members to label which plan they preferred, his or the council's.
"These politicians believe they have all the answers when they don't, and they have been unwilling to listen, as well," said school board member Dean Sirjue (Bowie) in an interview. "I think [in Hornsby] we have someone who has experience as an educator and understands."
Hornsby works for the school board, not the County Council, though the council controls the school system's budget. He also has an ally in County Executive Jack B. Johnson (D).
To his critics, the video, along with a series of public forums Hornsby has held in recent weeks, show that the county's most powerful educator is as political as they get.
"If he's interested in debate, I wish he would conduct a forum in which all points of view were heard rather than try to foment discontent, when that's exactly what the school system doesn't need," said council member Thomas E. Dernoga (D-Laurel). The task force set up by the council held its own forum this month.
The flap has buoyed his critics' contention that Hornsby has not shed a reputation for being arrogant and stubborn. When he was the school superintendent in Yonkers, N.Y., his clashes with labor unions and the city's mayor ultimately led to his firing in June 2000 after two years on the job.
Hornsby said he does not see himself as arrogant.
"I think there's a difference in competence and arrogance," he said. "Arrogance means I don't recognize what's going on around me. But when you're competent and confident, you do what you need to do to get the job done. I do recognize everything that's going on around me.
"I'm not an arrogant person. But I am a focused individual, and I do understand what we need to do to move this school system forward."
By all accounts, Hornsby is known for having high expectations. His employees describe him as demanding and involved in all aspects of running the school system.
He doesn't like excuses. When people say low test scores can be attributed to socioeconomic factors, Hornsby says it doesn't matter that nearly half of his students receive free or reduced-price meals, an indicator of poverty. It doesn't matter that more than 75 percent of them are African American and that black students historically have scored below their white peers on standardized tests.
Hornsby believes that with the right amount of rigor and qualified teachers and principals, things can improve dramatically.
But students have to do their part as well, he says. To that end, he decided that children in the new full-day pre-kindergarten program would not have the luxury of naps because there's too much material to cover. He changed the school calendar to begin classes a week earlier than usual. The first semester now ends in December, before winter break, so that students, even the youngest of them, can get used to a "college way of life."
"This system has allowed itself to only have a few schools that have the rigor that is necessary for children to demonstrate that they have the ability to be competitive in today's society," he said. "We can't continue to operate that way."
Teachers are now more focused on reading instruction, kindergarteners who aren't ready for first grade now spend the summer in school, and eighth-graders are required to take the PSAT, a national test designed for 11th-graders preparing for the SAT.
"He's brought a real stability to this system," said school board member Abby L.W. Crowley (Greenbelt). "Before, we had many, many programs and many, many wonderful teachers doing wonderful things, but there wasn't the continuity. There wasn't the consistency."
He also has pushed through changes that school leaders before him were unable to make. For example, Metts made several attempts to restructure magnet programs, which offer specialized instruction, but withdrew proposals after public opposition. Hornsby won school board support to overhaul the magnets in February, eliminating several popular programs that were not producing academic gains.
Earlier attempts to move students from the crowded, higher-performing Bowie High School to the under-enrolled DuVal High School also had failed; Hornsby successfully urged the school board to approve the boundary change in May.
Niemann, who served on the county school board when Metts ran the school system, praises Hornsby for ending "behind-the-scenes manipulation and policymaking by interest groups."
"When Dr. Metts was there and before that Dr. [Jerome] Clark, they would decide one thing and people would complain, people would come to the board meetings, and so forth, and they'd change their minds," Niemann said. "Dr. Hornsby doesn't play that game."
People do complain that Hornsby, despite being charming and easy to talk to, doesn't always seek or value their input. It's a complaint that worries even some of those who agree with his vision.
"There's a time and place for decisive action and command style," Niemann said. "If you're going to win in the long run and make gains, you have to create more of a sense of unity, more of a sense of team and enlist others in his vision. And I don't really see that he's done that."
Last spring, Hornsby created an "accelerated curriculum" that requires teachers to cover the current year's material while beginning to teach the next year's work. He also mandated weekend homework. Some teachers and parents complained that he ambushed them with his decision.
"He doesn't have a collaborative approach," said Nathaniel Thomas, a social studies teacher at Forestville Military Academy, one of the county's high schools. Thomas said Hornsby's message is, "I made the decision, this is how it's going to be, and if you all don't agree with it then you don't have to work in the school system."
"I don't feel that it's the best message, because people's voices are being left out of the process," Thomas said.
Hornsby points out that he regularly meets with committees of parents, teachers and community leaders and has held many public forums. "He talks instruction. He talks leadership," said Helena Nobles-Jones, principal of Charles H. Flowers High School in Springdale. "He knows what he's talking about."