The Anne Arundel school superintendent stood in the sanctuary of First Baptist Church in Annapolis - the 110-year-old heart of the county's black community - and told black parents something they already knew: The school system must do more for their children.
"The disparities are well-documented and will - in the near future - be eliminated," said Superintendent Eric J. Smith, who, barely two months into his term as head of the county school system, is part of a push by a number of suburban districts to address the issue.
On Wednesday, Smith announced plans to funnel more minority students into college-level classes and give them the support they need to succeed. He has put in place new, proven reading and math curricula at 14 elementary schools with high minority enrollment.
Smith has promised the school board that he would reduce the achievement gap - the gulf between test scores of whites and blacks - to less than 10 percent on all measures by 2007. He is so sure he can do it that he bet his $20,000 bonus on steady progress.
"No one I've come across aspires to be mediocre," Smith told the more than 100 parents and educators gathered Thursday night at First Baptist, who murmured their assent. "People aspire to greatness and to do wonderful things, and only stop when they're beaten back."
Smith's steps to spur achievement come at a time of soul-searching by school districts confronted with data documenting persistent gaps in performance between minority students and white students.
Baltimore County school officials recently unveiled a program aimed at pushing underachieving high school students into college-preparatory courses, and to provide teachers with online diversity, multicultural and special-education training.
Harford County's school system has spent about $500,000 over the past two years to close its minority achievement gap.
And in Howard County, the Comprehensive Plan for Accelerated School Improvement focuses on the 15 schools with the lowest test scores or the highest percentages of poor students.
"I think the achievement gaps ... are becoming very apparent, and very glaring in some cases," said Martin L. Johnson, director of the Maryland Institute for Minority Achievement and Urban Education at the University of Maryland's College of Education. "And I think that every school system is looking at test data and seeing these gaps and ... beginning to realize that something else needs to take place."
In Anne Arundel, Smith has excited a community frustrated by lagging test scores and by a perceived inequity across county schools. Even the brochure for Smith's talk at the church was titled "The Dawn of a New Day."
"Things are about to change in Anne Arundel County, and African-Americans are about to step up to the plate and play the game all first-class citizens play," said Clemon H. Wesley of RESPECT Inc., an umbrella organization for black groups in Annapolis.
In recent weeks, Smith has released data showing that black students score more than 200 points below whites on the SAT, take far fewer Advanced Placement classes and, at some schools, lag almost 20 points below the school average on reading and math tests.
Among the most striking disparities is the range of college-level Advanced Placement courses offered by Anne Arundel schools. Broadneck High, which is 87 percent white, offers 24 AP classes. Meade High, which is 47 percent black, offers seven.
Black students make up 18 percent of the county's high school students, but account for 4 percent of those who take AP classes.
"We don't need two school systems," said school board member Eugene Peterson, who is black and whose daughter takes AP courses at Meade High. "We need one school system."
Smith has created the label of "AP Certified High School," which he would apply to any school that offers 16 AP classes and a support network for students and teachers. Enrollment in the program is voluntary on the part of the school, but, Smith adds, highly encouraged.
Certified schools will be required to offer the AVID - or Advancement Via Individual Determination - program, which provides academic and social support for students who have the potential for college, but need a little push. Schools will offer "Pacesetter" courses - advanced versions of core academic classes that prepare students for AP work. And the school system will begin paying for the cost of the AP exams students take - about $80 each - in the spring of 2004. That, principals said, should get even more students into AP classes.
"We have a lot of kids who shy away from it because of the cost," said David Hill, principal of Glen Burnie High School. "It will take some of the kids who are sitting on the fence and get them off the fence."
Smith's focus isn't limited to high schools. He says children must know how to read by third grade. Some schools are getting new reading programs, including the phonics-based Open Court curriculum. At other schools, principals are getting data broken down into more detail than they have ever seen before to help target their efforts.
Smith's data book shows that at Arnold Elementary, for example, black pupils scored 17 points lower than the school average on standardized reading tests, and 18 points below on math tests.
African-American parents say such statistics confirm what they have suspected about their schools: that the school system needs to take drastic measures to help black children succeed. And they say Smith is the right man for the job.
"I have a lot of confidence in him," Kathy Waters said after Smith's talk at First Baptist. Waters has two children in the school system and said, "I think we're on the right track."
Smith warned parents that he cannot do it alone. Families, churches, businesses - all must get involved, he said.
"There's no way we can achieve what you expect without someone turning off the TV, turning on the kitchen light and saying, 'Yup, you're gonna do your homework,'" he told parents.
Someone asked him about the challenges of education in a city such as Annapolis, where many children come from public housing and transient families.
"I say bring on all children," he answered. "We have an opportunity here to make a statement about young people - from the low-income to the affluent, from all races - to make a statement that public education can and will be successful."
Sun staff writer Jackie Powder contributed to this article.