It's just one program, more or less, at an underperforming high school, a $120,000 footnote in the annual budget of Anne Arundel public schools.
But for Superintendent Eric J. Smith, the nationally recognized educator whose tenure ends at Thanksgiving, the fate of the rigorous International Baccalaureate program at Meade High School is taking on the dimensions of a final exam. And a seemingly routine question -- whether to expand the college-level program from two high schools to three -- has acquired symbolic meaning within the school system's headquarters in Annapolis.
It is perhaps the final chance for Smith to impose his vision, and his will, on a school system he set out to transform three years ago. He has built much of his reputation in Anne Arundel by importing or expanding rigorous programs such as IB, on the theory that an infusion of challenging coursework would benefit all.
Smith acknowledges that completing the trio of IB schools is "a very important piece" of his plan, and his legacy, in the county.
But first he must get past the school board. The group publicly broke with Smith this summer over an audit that found excesses in pay to top administrators. Several board members have openly challenged Smith in recent weeks, a break from genteel tradition.
In their first discussion about expanding IB, at a Sept. 21 board meeting, Smith battled the board to a draw. Smith, armed with charts and bulleted points to make his case, encountered determined resistance from several constituencies, including a handful of parents and board members.
At one point in the meeting, board member Eugene Peterson, who is black, spoke directly to Joan Valentine, the black principal of Meade, who was seated opposite the dais.
"What are we going to do for your kids, Joan, and my kids, who score 480 and less on the SAT?" he asked. "This program is never going to be for those kids. . . . It's kind of like the 'Tale of Two Cities' here."
Black students in the county trail their white counterparts in standardized tests.
Others, on the board and in the audience, heaped questions on Smith's initiative. One board member asked why the school system couldn't simply designate the high school as a math-science magnet and forgo IB. Another reminded Smith that IB was hardly the most urgent budget priority of the board.
Finally, the exhausted board tabled the proposal until Wednesday.
The IB program, created in Switzerland, costs $1,500 to $2,500 per student, mostly in transportation and staffing expenses. The Anne Arundel school board approved installing IB in 2003 at Annapolis and Old Mill, two high schools with diverse populations and middling test scores. But the group has balked at expanding the program to Meade, which would raise the cost of IB to $1.8 million a year by fiscal 2010.
It is among Smith's goals, set soon after his arrival in 2002, that 10 percent of high school seniors will have received at least one IB certificate by graduation. After a civil rights settlement this summer, the goal now applies also to the system's black students as a group.
"What it signals to me," if the board does not approve expanding the IB, "is a course different from the goals that were established in '02," Smith said in an interview following the acrimonious Sept. 21 meeting.
The Meade community, centered on the military installation, considers math and science study nothing less than a matter of national security. Test scores place Meade toward the bottom of the pack among Anne Arundel high schools.
Smith contends that bringing IB to Meade could raise the school's currency while sating a rising demand for the program around the county. Nearly 500 students attend IB and pre-IB courses at Annapolis and Old Mill. If a third campus weren't added, officials said, they would have to resort to a lottery and at least 52 students would be rejected for fall 2006.
"The challenge for me is, when you have kids that want to step up and do the work, it's very difficult for me to say, 'No, we don't have room; we can't afford it,' " Smith said.
He envisions IB transforming Meade and the other Anne Arundel schools in much the same way that the program reinvigorated Mount Vernon High School in Fairfax County. Installed a decade ago, IB is credited with helping restore the school's academic reputation. A third of Mount Vernon's IB students are black and Hispanic, a rarity among college-level programs.
Rosetta Holloway, the mother of a senior at Meade, reasons that the same thing could happen there.
"I'm sure we have a lot of kids who could step up to the plate if we offered it," she said. "It'd be a plus for the students."
But at the recent school board meeting, several speakers lashed out at the program. One told Smith: "What parents in Anne Arundel want is math and science. IB is not math and science."
The IB curriculum is heavy in math and science, and its rigor is almost universally recognized by academe. Yet the program remains little-known in Anne Arundel outside the schools that offer it. County Executive Janet S. Owens dismissed it as a "pilot program" in rejecting an earlier request to expand it into middle schools. Some on the school board, to judge by their public comments to date, remain convinced that the school system can design a superior program on its own.
Smith does not share that view. And he contends that expanding IB will create opportunities for low-income students at Meade High even as it draws affluent students back into the public system from competing private schools.
Entrance requirements for IB study, Smith said, are not beyond the grasp of any determined student. Applicants must have a 3.0 grade-point average, must take both algebra and a foreign language by the end of middle school and must rate proficient on the Maryland School Assessment to enroll in IB.
Among IB students at Old Mill High School, the more diverse site, 21 percent are black, 11 percent are Asian and 6 percent are Hispanic. Total minority enrollment at Annapolis High's program is 14 percent. Seventy-four students enrolled in IB at the two high schools came from private schools.
"It certainly is not designed to [be limited] to elite students," Smith said. "It's designed for kids who want to work hard, who are very capable, who tend to be overachievers, who want to put in an extra effort for us."