From her seat on the carpeted floor, 7-year-old Kierra Hawkins stared up at the tall, distinguished-looking gentleman sitting in her teacher's rocking chair yesterday morning.
"Is this the cutest class in the school?" the man asked, surveying the small children seated in a circle around him. "Yes," said Kierra and her classmates, who had been told that he was the man "over all the children in all the schools in the United States."
"Well," continued Rod Paige, U.S. secretary of education, "for that reason, we're going to read a story."
Paige visited the second-grade class during a tour of Mills-Parole Elementary School to celebrate the start of the school year, he said, and because he likes to pay these sorts of visits.
"I really relish the opportunity to walk down the hallways of grade schools, to understand again the importance of the work we do," Paige said.
After reading a story to the second-graders and visiting several other classes, he held a brief forum to answer questions from local elected officials, community leaders, parents and pupils. And he talked about the good things he said the federal No Child Left Behind Act will do by striving to improve the education of all children.
"That's very new," Paige told the group. "No society has ever done that. It's never been achieved. But we are a great nation."
Anne Arundel County Executive Janet S. Owens expressed concern about the impact the law is likely to have on local governments. She asked Paige for advice about how counties could pay for what she called unfunded federal mandates such as the one that the education act appears likely to include.
"I'd appreciate any words of wisdom, because I'm trying to help Dr. [Eric J.] Smith [the Anne Arundel school superintendent]," said Owens, a Democrat.
Paige responded that President Bush has increased education spending by "historic" proportions, 47 percent since he took office.
Smith, who sat beside Paige, nodded in agreement.
Paige criticized Owens' choice of words, saying, "Notwithstanding the catchiness of the phrase 'unfunded mandate,' it is completely inaccurate. ... I invite people to be careful when they use statements like that."
Earlier yesterday morning, Principal Alfreda Adams watched Paige greet children arriving on school buses. He stood near the door of each bus, shaking every child's hand or delivering a pat on the head, then walked on the bus and shook the driver's hand.
"I thought it was nice he took the time to thank each bus driver," Adams said.
It was the most important visit Adams has had in her seven years as principal of the high-poverty school, which lately has made gains in reading and math test scores. She was a little nervous at first, but she got over it after meeting Paige.
"Right after his handshake, I knew I was OK," Adams said. "You could tell right away he enjoys what he does. ... He's warm and genuine and sincere."
The principal said she did not have much trouble getting the school ready for Paige's arrival. The floors had been polished for the first day of school Tuesday, and pupils had been told about the importance of the visit.
"They were in awe of who was coming," Adams said. She also put up signs for the occasion, including a blue one that read: "Welcome. Bienvenidos, Secretary Paige."
At the school library and media center, where two dozen people gathered for the question-and-answer forum, Smith introduced Paige by saying he has known the secretary for many years and admires his ideals and leadership.
Paige, a former Houston school superintendent, said, "Actually, the tables should be turned. It is my honor to be in your presence."
During the discussion, Del. Herbert H. McMillan, a Republican whose district includes Annapolis, said he agrees with Paige's assertion that schools must try to be more efficient about the funding they receive.
Annapolis Mayor Ellen O. Moyer urged Paige not to let a focus on test scores overshadow such things as the importance of smaller classes.
Other questioners asked how young teachers could be recruited and how special education students could be expected to measure up to the same standards as other students.
Answering the latter question, Paige said, "We can't have a program that will leave them out. Does that place some additional burden on us? Absolutely, it does. We think they're worth it."