Students turn to watch as Michael S. Steele - holding a plastic foam tray with a chicken patty sandwich, fries, ketchup and strawberry yogurt - sits down at the cafeteria table reserved for him.
"Come on over," the lieutenant governor says, and suddenly he's surrounded by eight freshmen.
He's asking about their transition to high school (scary, no big deal) and their favorite subjects (gym, biology).
They're asking him to make their lunch period longer ("What would you do with an extra 15 minutes?"), and whether he brought that poinsettia in the middle of the table (no).
Steele spent yesterday as a student at Dulaney High School in Timonium, trying to be as inconspicuous as one can be while being followed by a press secretary, two staff members, two state troopers, the principal and the executive director of the new Governor's Commission on Quality Education.
He sat quietly in student desks during discussions of surrealistic computer images and the changing role of women during the French Revolution. In Advanced Placement statistics, he joined students calling out answers about the probability of winning in a casino game.
As chairman of the 31-member commission, Steele has set out to visit at least one school from each of Maryland's 24 districts. He says his only agenda is to see what's working in the state's public schools and what's not.
Dulaney gave him a sense of how an academic powerhouse ticks. It was the 10th school Steele visited, but the first at which he stayed all day. He woke up at 5 a.m. to catch a school bus in Baldwin at 6:45 a.m.
"I'm like a blank page, just trying to get filled with information and knowledge," said Steele, dressed in jeans, loafers and a black sweater-vest over a white button-down shirt with the "Maryland Delegation" logo emblazoned on the right sleeve.
But the state's No. 2 elected official offered some ideas about improving public schools: He said he'd like to see principals and teachers have more autonomy. In particular, he said, principals - not central-office administrators - should control maintenance money so they can make repairs as needed.
He became upset during a visit to Northeast Middle School in Baltimore when he learned that the principal had been waiting two years to get a broken door handle fixed. At Dulaney, when he saw a broken door hinge, he asked Principal Lyle R. Patzkowsky when he put in a work order. Patzkowsky said he'd check.
"Principals need freedom to hire and fire, to contract for services they need so they can get a window replaced in a week instead of a year," Steele said later in an interview. Asked whether districts need more money for school repairs, he responded: "Don't even go there. ... It's all about management."
Others disagree. Last year, a state task force said it would cost $3.85 billion to make the basic repairs needed in public schools. Local governments have been asking the state to increase school construction funding by more than a billion dollars over the next several years.
Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. signed an executive order Sept. 27 creating the Commission on Quality Education to examine teacher and principal accountability, and growth, school and community linkages, best practices in education, and school readiness and early childhood programs. He gave the group until Sept. 1 to complete a report with recommendations. The Maryland State Teachers Association and Ehrlich's political rivals have criticized the panel's makeup and mission.
After visiting 10 classes yesterday, Steele sat down with 20 students, asking what they like and don't like about their school. The students had many positive things to say about Dulaney and much praise for their teachers. They also said the bathrooms are "gross," too many students smoke outside and school spirit is "nonexistent."
"We're apathetic because we're so concerned with our personal goals," said senior Marlowe Boukis, 17, who plans to attend Princeton University. She and others told Steele that the Maryland School Assessments and High School Assessments are tedious and unnecessary for high performers.
Steele concluded the day meeting with parents, teachers and community leaders in a session closed to media. He said the visits are giving him several ideas to take back to Annapolis.
"When you want to get ketchup out of a bottle, sometimes you have to turn it upside down," he said. "We may shake things up a little bit."