Todd Franklin lives in Morris Hills, a sturdy, middle-class, mostly black section of Glen Burnie, in a house around the corner from the one where he grew up. He's married to a woman from across the street. He lives there because the streets are safe, the neighbors are trustworthy and the local school is getting better. A lot better.
His son Joshua is part of the reason. At North Glen Elementary School in the spring, all but one of the 16 black students in the third grade, including Joshua Franklin, scored well enough on the statewide Maryland School Assessment test to be rated proficient. They scored higher than almost every other group of black third-graders in Maryland.
Over the past three years, this Anne Arundel school has achieved a goal that eludes most of the nation's public schools. It has closed the achievement gap between black and white students.
Among black students at North Glen, third-grade proficiency on the statewide test rose from 32 percent in 2003 to 94 percent this year, placing the campus among the top schools in Maryland for black students' performance. Across the third and fourth grades, a grand total of three black students, out of 37 tested, failed to attain proficiency. Blacks now outperform whites on several measures at the racially diverse campus, and white students perform very well.
"My children? Supreme Court judges," Franklin said, beaming at Joshua's younger brother, Joel, as he painted a construction-paper turtle in a classroom on a recent evening, part of a family reading night. "The sky's the limit."
The rise of North Glen Elementary, a school where two-fifths of students are from families poor enough to qualify for free meals, illustrates how a public school can go a very long way in a very short time with the help of a charismatic principal, an enthusiastic staff and supportive parents.
Its academic dossier -- a mixed-race, working-class, high-poverty school with test scores to rival schools in affluent suburbs -- embodies the goal of No Child Left Behind, the federal mandate created as a means to raise academic achievement across all racial and socioeconomic groups, and, most symbolically, to close the historic achievement gap between blacks and whites.
The school's ascendance began three years ago. North Glen Elementary got a new county superintendent, Eric J. Smith; a new statewide test, the Maryland School Assessment; five new teachers; and a new principal, Maurine Larkin, a giddy educator who occasionally allowed herself to be wheeled around the campus on a dolly.
The principal, who was promoted to a bigger school this fall, prepared North Glen students for the annual round of statewide testing, known by the acronym MSA, with a stuffed Chihuahua called "Ms. A," who sometimes spoke to students as Larkin's alter ego during morning announcements.
"I'm not saying we had the master plan at the beginning. The plan kept evolving," said Larkin, whose replacement at North Glen, Julie Little McVearry, is similarly well-regarded.
Throughout the 1990s and into this decade, North Glen was a modestly successful school, with test scores one might expect from a campus with substantial poverty. On statewide tests, whites usually outscored blacks.
In 2003, the first year of the MSA, North Glen ranked 575th among 839 Maryland elementary schools in third-grade reading. About one-third of black students -- and two-thirds of whites -- rated proficient.
The new principal launched a schoolwide campaign to raise the number of students enrolled for federally subsidized meals, offering popsicles to those who turned in paperwork. That kept the students fed and, perhaps more important, it triggered more funding from the federal government.
Larkin was able to double the number of staff members assigned to provide extra help to low-scoring students. She launched before- and after-school programs for low performers.
She hired teachers carefully, building an energetic young staff willing to work with the new superintendent and his countywide curriculum changes, which didn't sit well in some schools. She recalled "literally praying after every interview, hoping I'd hired the right person."
Larkin sensed that teachers and students were jittery about the all-important statewide exam, which, together with the broader federal mandates, had placed considerable stress on schools.
"If you get them all stressed out, they're not going to do well on tests," she said. "They're children."
Larkin sat down with every fourth- and fifth-grade student to go over their scores from the previous year. Then, as the spring testing date approached, Larkin trotted out "Ayap," another stuffed dog, this one named for the federal goal of adequate yearly progress.
"I would walk around with him, and Ayap would kiss people -- Ayap wants you to do just a little bit better than last year," Larkin said, lapsing into stuffed-dog-speak.
Students who take the statewide exam are scored at one of three levels: advanced, signifying "outstanding accomplishment"; proficient, corresponding to "realistic and rigorous" achievement; or basic, indicating more work is needed. Students who score in the two higher levels are considered proficient, essentially the make-or-break standard under No Child Left Behind.
In 2003, eight of 25 black students in North Glen's third grade rated proficient in reading. The next year, 11 of 18 showed proficiency; and this year, 15 of 16.
Today, North Glen's teachers, most of them hired by Larkin, enjoy the sort of bond that comes from singing karaoke, kidnapping the principal's stuffed dog and plotting academic strategy together in a school with just 250 students.
The parents typify the changing face of this town, once strictly a Baltimore suburb, now a part of the Baltimore-Washington-Annapolis sprawl.
Glen Burnie is home to a mix of state government and utility workers, mid-level professionals and the self-employed, longtime residents and new arrivals, living in tiny ranch homes and townhouses and apartments in communities called Cromwell Fountain and Pleasantville.
Brian McElroy, working his BlackBerry at the family night, is a member of Glen Burnie's burgeoning black professional class. The corporate consultant moved his family from Howard County four years ago for "a two-car-garage townhome, convenient to the airport, convenient to all the major highways."
A revamped mall on Route 2, anchored by a new Target store, attests that Glen Burnie is changing. "It has to," McElroy said.
Daughter Ameena is in the second grade at North Glen. Son Amir is in kindergarten. McElroy is already thinking about college.
He and his wife chose North Glen after reviewing its scores. "The school's made a really big turnaround," he said.