But the intangible changes that Shouldice witnessed also made him proud of the progress. Only four teachers retired or left the school by choice at the end of this year, perhaps one of the greatest testaments to the change in culture.

The proof also lay in students like Didi and Shain, who walked across the stage at graduation June 7 on their way to community college. "It was a huge relief. I have come so far ... and it felt like a big accomplishment," said Shain.

But everyone knows there are still great issues to wrestle with. Every year, 50 percent of the school's student body turns over. Of the 260 rising seniors, only 63 had been at the school in ninth grade. Overall, the economy has taken a toll on families, who are falling out of the middle class.

The school is facing more changes. Class sizes will increase because the school has lost 14 teaching positions as part of a reduction in high school staff countywide. A $60 million facility, which will combine Sollers Point High with Dundalk, is rising just feet away from the old building and is expected to open in the fall of 2013.

But as the school year begins, Shouldice believes his young faculty is beyond their first- and second-year difficulties and are now beginning to feel comfortable in their teaching skins. "I have great confidence in them," he said.

Personally, though, he knows that they must get much better. He needs 90 percent of the staff to be outstanding, not just 20 percent, as it is at some schools. And in his reflective moments he does have doubts.

"There is no formula for this. How do you lead a group of teachers to be remarkable teachers?" he asks.

He wonders how he will sustain the progress and keep the faculty creative, energized, proud of the school and fulfilled professionally. "I want them to feel valued by what we are doing and the community," he says.

Shouldice hopes by the time he is moving students into the new building in two years, principals from around the region will be coming to look at Dundalk to ask how it managed to achieve what many schools haven't.

In the meantime, he knows he has a lot of work to do.

liz.bowie@baltsun.com