Kevin M. Maxwell chats with Prince George's County Executive Rushern L. Baker III at a community meeting at Crossland High School in Temple Hills in early July. (Marvin Joseph/The Washington Post)

Poised to sign a new four-year contract with Anne Arundel County schools, Superintendent Kevin M. Maxwell saw a “magic moment” developing in neighboring Prince George’s County this spring.

As County Executive Rushern L. Baker III jockeyed to take over the struggling Prince George’s school system, a contentious debate emerged about its future. Elected officials, educators, parents and lawmakers were, for the first time in years, having candid discussions about how to improve education in the county and, in turn, improve the county’s economic standing in the Washington region.

“It looked like a magic moment when everybody said we want to make things dramatically better for our county,” said Maxwell, a longtime Prince George’s resident. Maxwell wanted to be a part of it, opting to leave what he called an “easier career path” in Anne Arundel for what he knows is a far more challenging one in his home county.

Maxwell ‘has lived it’

Hired this month with the expectation of turning around the second-largest school system in Maryland — now chronically one of the state’s worst-performing districts — Maxwell also is at the heart of Baker’s ambitious plan. The county executive has pinned much of the school system’s future, and perhaps his own immediate political future, on Maxwell’s selection as superintendent.

Baker (D) said he came up with a composite of the type of person that he wanted to lead the school system: A team player who would raise employee morale. A strong administrator willing to make the tough decisions. A proven leader who would commit to the county.

“He brings something unique that you can’t find unless you came through the system,” Baker said. “He brings judgment about the school system that he has worked in and has sent his children through. He has lived it — the good, the bad, the ugly.”

Maxwell is a veteran educator who grew up in Prince George’s, attending public schools and spending much of his career there. The Bowie resident will assume the top schools job Thursday as part of a major administrative shake-up that limits the role of a reconfigured Board of Education and places more power in the hands of the superintendent, now known as the chief executive officer.

In an interview at his Annapolis office, Maxwell said people have asked him why he would leave Anne Arundel for a county that has struggled and has seen rapid leadership turnover. He will be the eighth schools chief in Prince George’s in 14 years. Maxwell said he welcomes the challenge.

“I think I can make a huge difference in Prince George’s,” said Maxwell, who is highly regarded for his leadership in Prince George’s, Montgomery County and Anne Arundel schools, where he was superintendent for the past seven years. “I’ve already made a huge difference here, and while I can continue to make a difference in Anne Arundel County, I think the opportunity is even greater in Prince George’s County.”

No one thinks the road to repair will be easy.

“I wouldn’t say he’s got an uphill battle, but he’s got a tough one ahead, and he’s going to have to make some tough decisions,” said Juanita Miller, the education chairwoman of the NAACP’s Prince George’s branch. The NAACP, which backed Baker’s plan after initially objecting to it, has pushed for an audit of the school system. The organization hopes resources can be redirected from the central office to the classroom.

Maxwell said he plans to first take a hard look at the county schools’ allocation of resources, classroom sizes, and what instruction and facilities look like. He wants to focus on accelerating academic achievement and luring middle-class parents — many of whom have removed their children from the county’s schools in favor of private schools or other jurisdictions — back to the public school system.

Proficiency scores for eighth-graders in Prince George's County still lag behind the state average.

He would like to see ­pre-kindergarten expanded in certain high-need areas and hopes to increase the number of specialty programs that are available to students, something he accomplished in Anne Arundel. He also believes that more students could participate in gifted and talented programs than are currently allowed.

“Early education is a significant key, and I think one of the other ones is the expectations that you lay out for kids,” Maxwell said. “Opening the doors to more rigorous programs for children, even in elementary school, I think, would be a very, very positive thing.”

He said he is optimistic that he, the school board and Baker will be able to work through the new structural issues, because “everyone wants what’s best for the students and what’s best for Prince George’s County.”

Maxwell returns to a school system that is different from the one he left 13 years ago. Overall enrollment has dropped by more than 8,000 students. The percentage of students from ­low-income families has grown by one-third. Parents’ trust in the school system has not improved.

And Prince George’s has consistently been near the bottom of the state’s 24 school districts in terms of achievement, finishing above only Dorchester County and Baltimore on the most recent state elementary level tests and above only Baltimore in middle-school testing.

Maxwell is familiar with the challenges ahead of him because he is deeply familiar with the county.

After graduating from Bladensburg High School, he dropped out of Prince George’s Community College to join the Navy because his family could not afford to keep sending him to school. He later was the first in his family to earn a college degree, getting his bachelor’s and master’s degrees from the University of Maryland at College Park and his doctorate from the University of Maryland Baltimore County.

He started his teaching career in the county in 1978. During the 22 years that followed, he worked as a teacher and administrator in four Prince George’s schools, including Buck Lodge Middle and Crossland, Central and Northwestern high schools. In his eight years as principal of Northwestern, in Hyattsville, he increased Advanced Placement participation and secured funding for the construction of a new school facility. His wife, Nancy, recently retired as a county teacher.

Skills, knowledge, insight

Kenneth Haines, who worked with Maxwell at Northwestern and fought for Maxwell to stay at the school when he left in 2000 to become the principal of Walter Johnson High School in Bethesda, said Maxwell was his favorite principal in his 25-year teaching career.

Haines, now president of Prince George’s County Educators’ Association, said Maxwell considered teachers to be “part of the solution and not part of the problem,” and he expects him to bring the same philosophy to the schools chief position.

Baker said he was unsure how his choice would go over with county residents and said he is heartened by the response to Maxwell.

“Teachers, principals and unions — people were still mad about the process,” Baker said. But once Maxwell’s name came out, “the thing that was most surprising, most pleasing, everyone said: ‘Great choice. Perfect choice.’ ”

Chris Garran, who worked for Maxwell at Walter Johnson, said Maxwell carefully listens to people and is open to ideas. He empowers those who are around him, Garran said.

“The kids were in and out of his office, and the teachers were in and out of his office,” said Garran, now the associate superintendent for high schools in Montgomery. “He sets high marks for you, but he’s there to help you reach them.”

Former Montgomery schools superintendent Jerry Weast said Maxwell will “do what is necessary for the children and the employees.”

“He has the skills, knowledge and insight,” Weast said.

And unlike in Anne Arundel, where he repeatedly fought with then-county executive John Leopold (R) over school funding, Maxwell comes to Prince George’s with a good relationship with Baker, to whom he will report directly.

Ray Leone, former president of the Anne Arundel County PTA, said that when Maxwell, an avid reader, arrived in Anne Arundel, he gave members of his staff copies of “Good to Great,” a book about management.

“He’s a big motivator,” Leone said. “He was saying you’re operating pretty well, but it’s time to take it to the next level. And he took it to the next level.”

College scholarships for high school seniors jumped from $36 million in 2006, when Maxwell became superintendent, to $127 million this year. He increased the number of magnet schools and “signature” programs. He also spent much of his time in Anne Arundel focusing on narrowing the achievement gap for African American students. Although the county has seen gains, black students still lag behind white counterparts there. In 2005, a year before Maxwell arrived, the school system and the Justice Department signed an agreement to address disparities in achievement.

He said that while there has been some success, his one regret as he leaves Anne Arundel is he wishes “that we had been able to get even more accomplished in that area.”

Maxwell said he expects to tell his staff in Prince George’s that he cannot move the county schools ahead on his own. He said he needs people to set aside their personal agendas and that it is critical to have buy-in at all levels.

“If they are not comfortable with that path, and they have some other choices, they are certainly welcome to make them,” Maxwell said. “There are a lot of good things going on, there needs to be more of them and they need to be moving at a faster pace.”

Janet Hutner, a Spanish teacher at Northwestern who worked with Maxwell, said she expects that Maxwell will bring a level of collaboration to the district that it has not seen before.

“I think he is the one man who will be able to unite the different factions,” Hutner said. “His vision, his enthusiasm and professionalism will filter down to parents, students and teachers.”