A decade ago, when most educators had yet to embrace the computer, South River High School Principal James Hamilton led a group called the Pail Riders. The group of teachers and parents would drive pickup trucks to a government warehouse on weekends to scavenge for computer parts to deliver back to the school.
Technology helped Hamilton and his staff elevate South River High, in Edgewater, from an academic backwater to one of Anne Arundel's top high schools. Hamilton introduced concepts that put the campus years ahead of other public schools: deconstructing standardized test scores and using the results to tweak teaching methods; filling the school with computers -- one for every four students -- and teaching classroom instructors how to use them; and planning lessons "vertically," up and down the grades, so that every teacher knows what students have learned the previous year.
Now, 15 years after Hamilton became South River's principal, the school ranks among the top three high schools in the county in average SAT scores, on college-level Advanced Placement testing and in passing the High School Assessments.
Hamilton is 58 now and walks with a cane, the result of a ruptured disc that kept him out of school for parts of the 2004-05 academic year. He rules largely from his office, surrounded by a collection of chiming clocks and vexed by a motion-controlled light that sometimes ticks off when he forgets to move.
Hamilton concedes that even his legendary memory -- he's said to know the name of every spouse among his 110 teachers -- is getting a bit fuzzy.
"As you get into your 30th or 35th year, it's hard to stay new, to stay fresh," he said, sitting in his office on a recent morning.
South River is the only high school in Anne Arundel to be named a Maryland Blue Ribbon School of Excellence, the state's top honor for a school, bestowed in 1997. It merited a visit in 2001 by then-U.S. Education Secretary Rod Paige, who lamented that "unfortunately, not every school in America is as good as this one."
Yet the school generates little buzz in the Anne Arundel academic community and seems to lack the word-of-mouth reputation of Severna Park and Broadneck high schools, its academic rivals.
"Even though we're always in the top three, it always seems as though we are second class," said Betsy Beach, who put two daughters through South River High. "Maybe it's just because we're in our own little world."
Although South River lies just eight miles from Annapolis, it sometimes seems far from the center of the educational universe in Anne Arundel. Bigger schools with better sports teams grab more headlines. Parents along the Annapolis-Arnold-Severna Park axis in the densely populated central county -- and their concerns -- sometimes seem more prominent at school board meetings.
Part of the reason, South River parents say, is that the campus historically wasn't large enough to compete on the playing field. Until the phased enrollment of 800 new students from Crofton in the late 1990s, South River held barely 1,000 students within its walls.
South River High came into the world as an "open-space" campus, the product of a regrettable late-1970s trend toward educational buildings without walls. When 1,700 students filed in on the first day, in fall 1979, no one knew quite where to go.
"There were no traffic patterns. There were no halls to walk down," said Sheila Finlayson, now the county teachers union president, then a young English teacher. "We cut out hundreds of black feet and we glued them to the floor," so students would know where to walk.
The open-space concept didn't work; by the end of the first academic year, temporary walls had been planted around the classrooms. A late-1990s renovation made the walls permanent.
South River has always served a wide swath of southern and western Anne Arundel. But until the expansion into Crofton in the last decade, the campus was so small that "it was almost like sending them to a private school," recalled Mary Hatcher of Davidsonville, whose oldest son graduated in 1999.
The school boasted little or no teacher turnover and a solid academic program.
But when Hamilton arrived at South River as an assistant principal in 1986, "we were consistently about eighth out of 12" among the county's high schools in academic performance, he recalled.
Hamilton was a former spelunker and college deejay who would one day read Mick Jagger lyrics at commencement exercises. A graduate of Indiana University, he started work in Anne Arundel in 1968 as a science teacher at Bates Junior High School and rose through the ranks. He found time to complete a law degree at the University of Baltimore in 1979.
After taking the principal's job in 1990, Hamilton wrote a school-improvement plan for South River, a prophetic document that focused on using student data from standardized tests to change teaching methods and ultimately raise scores. Using disaggregated test scores to improve teaching wasn't as common then as it is now, in part because educators were just learning how to use software to manipulate numbers.
Julia Pruchniewski, a longtime English teacher, helped to write instructions for sprinkling SAT-level vocabulary words across the campus, with teachers coordinating so that students didn't get the same words each year.
"We said, 'Okay, when you teach this particular novel, here are 20 words you can teach the kids, and they will help them understand the novel, but they will also help them on the SAT,' " recalled Pruchniewski, who recently retired.
South River's ranking on the SAT among the 12 county high schools rose from eighth to fourth in a single year, 1994.
Elements of Hamilton's school improvement plan were eventually adopted by the county school system, and pieces of that plan were later picked up by the state education department.
Hamilton was even better known in those days as the man who led the Anne Arundel school system into the online era. He taught his staff to use computers in the classroom, and then he led a countywide group charged with bringing computers to every school.
"When the Internet came around -- and that, of course, rocked our world -- he told us that we could all use it, and he kept us after school and he told us we could do it," said Shelley Finkelstein, a U.S. history teacher at South River.
Like any educational leader, Hamilton has his detractors. In the spring of 2003 he was widely criticized for responding too slowly to a series of racist incidents on campus that generated an avalanche of unflattering publicity for South River. Hamilton ultimately suspended or expelled the students involved.
Teachers credit Hamilton with leaving them alone to do their work, respecting their time and not suffocating them with endless meetings. But he is also known as something of a hermit, not the sort of administrator who roams the halls patting students on the back.
Mary Hatcher, whose three sons have attended South River, prefers to remember the man who dragged himself to the senior prom last spring, shortly after the back injury, to stand in the line of teachers greeting students, just as he had in each of the last 20-odd years.
"And he could hardly walk," Hatcher said. "But these were his kids, and he was going to be there for them."