When gang violence was on the rise at Northwestern High School in Prince George's County in the late 1990s, the principal took an unorthodox step to keep the trouble out of his school building: He invited gang leaders into his office for a chat.
Eight members of two rival groups showed up for the after-school summit one day. After being checked for weapons with a wandlike metal detector, they sat down with the principal, the school's head of security and a county police officer.
The discussion that ensued touched on a range of issues, including ways to keep the school's hallways safer and questions raised by one gang member about the school's expulsion policy.
The principal, Kevin M. Maxwell, believes that the outreach helped calm the waters. "I think it reduced the gang-related violence throughout the rest of my tenure," he said.
Maxwell, 54, who was just chosen as superintendent of the Anne Arundel County public schools, effective July 1, has made a name for himself in educational circles for an approach that brings people together and builds consensus.
That's just what some say is needed for the Anne Arundel system, which is reeling from the sometimes-contentious term of Eric J. Smith.
Smith, who is credited with raising test scores and participation in advanced-level courses in Anne Arundel, resigned last fall amid strained relations with the board and a planned no-confidence vote by the county teachers union.
Sally Pelham, an assistant in the office of school performance in Montgomery County, where Maxwell is one of six community superintendents overseeing a cluster of schools, said teamwork is important to him.
"He's very collaborative and builds loyalty and trust easily," Pelham said. "He values relationships and understands their power in making positive change."
Members of the Board of Education for the Anne Arundel system, the fifth-largest in the state, said they were looking for a leader who could bridge gaps and work well with everyone. The job advertisement called for "an open and inclusive communicator," someone who "is effective building strong relationships."
"From the group perspective, he met a lot of the criteria we set," said Enrique Melendez, a board member. "And I think all of us thought we felt like we could work with him."
During an interview last week in his Montgomery County office - and later on a visit to a local high school - the mustachioed, gray-haired Maxwell was easygoing and approachable.
He spoke in a commanding voice, occasionally breaking into a hearty laugh, and was deliberative in answering questions. He shares his office with two fish tanks, one of which holds a freshwater lobster that he calls Larry.
"You could argue whether he is a lobster or a crayfish," Maxwell said. "But he was a gift so we take care of him."
Throughout his 22 years in Prince George's County and six years in Montgomery - the state's largest school system - Maxwell has engendered loyalty in a tight-knit team that he has worked with for years, those close to him said.
As a principal, Maxwell met regularly with community members, parents and students. More recently, he led the Montgomery County team that negotiated with the teachers union.
Tom Israel, executive director of Montgomery County Education Association, said Maxwell was an "honest partner" in the bargaining process.
"He's a good listener, a consensus builder and respectful of teachers," Israel said. "He heard what teachers' concerns were, and he worked with us to try address them. We had a lot of issues over questions of teacher time, and he's been responsive to that problem and appreciative of it and I can't say that about everyone. I think that Kevin understands what daily life in the classroom is like."
Not all teachers felt that way about Smith, a nationally known educator, who was lured from the Charlotte-Mecklenburg, N.C., school system in 2002 with a salary and benefits package worth about $300,000 a year.
Unlike Smith, however, Maxwell, who lives in Bowie, has worked only in the state and has never led an entire school system. He will go from overseeing 39 schools with a student population of about 27,000 in Montgomery County to taking charge of more than 100 schools and learning centers with 5,000 faculty members, 74,000 students and a budget of $723 million.
"I've been well-prepared for the position," said Maxwell, noting that the cluster of schools he oversees is larger than many school districts.
Asked what he will do when he arrives in Anne Arundel in July, Maxwell is reluctant to discuss details. Instead, he said diplomatically, "I'll have to have a lot of meetings."
He will have a lot to consider. The school system must comply with a civil rights agreement that raises the achievement bar for minority students by next year, and the school system could undergo a major redrawing of school attendance boundaries.
Also, the Board of Education is likely will consider creating a magnet-school policy in the face of political pressure to place a math and science magnet at Meade High School.
Though his path to superintendent seems methodical, Maxwell didn't always know he wanted to be an educator.
A 1969 graduate of Bladensburg High School in Prince George's County, Maxwell spent three years on active duty with the Navy, in the Medical Corps. He later attended Prince George's Community College and the University of Maryland, College Park on the GI Bill.
He recalls that he wasn't sure what he wanted to do when he grew up until he started working with a church youth group. That's when he realized that "I just really like working with kids."
He earned a doctorate in the language, literacy and culture program at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County.
His rise from teacher to school administrator to superintendent "just sort of evolved," he says.
He spent eight years as principal of Northwestern High School in Hyattsville. While there, he said, he increased student participation in Advanced Placement courses tenfold and helped improve student achievement.
He said he is proudest of the construction of a high school, which he lobbied for and helped design around the concept of "smaller learning communities."
Maxwell makes it a point to be available.
"His door was always open to students," said Donna Sonnemann, Maxwell's assistant, who has worked with him for most of the past 17 years. "He really feels that students should believe that what they have to offer is of value."
It was at Northwestern that he caught the eye of Jerry D. Weast, superintendent of Montgomery County public schools. He recruited Maxwell to be principal of Walter Johnson High School in Bethesda, a school much different from Northwestern.
"It is a more affluent high school." Maxwell said. "It has a higher degree of academic rigor."
Weast said he was looking for a principal who would improve student achievement, work well with school employees and engage and win over parents.
"He succeeded in all three fronts," Weast said, first as a principal and then after he was promoted to a community superintendent in 2004.
Similar to an area superintendent in other school systems, a community superintendent serves as a link between the central office and a group of schools.
"I have no doubt he'll make an excellent superintendent," Weast said.
Maxwell, whose new salary is being negotiated but will exceed $200,000 a year, brings some familiarity with the Anne Arundel school system.
His twin daughters graduated from Arundel High School in the late 1990s. Though they were living with Maxwell's former wife - he has remarried - he said he was involved with school activities and attended band concerts.
Pictures of his four children abound in his Montgomery County office, along with framed pictures of civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. and President John F. Kennedy.
"I think they both wanted to change things for the better," Maxwell said.
When he happened across the two photographs in a store, he said, he picked them up as a reminder that "I also want to change things for the better and improve things. And my vehicle for that is public education."
Sun reporter Nia-Malika Henderson contributed to this article.
Name-- Kevin M. Maxwell. Age-- 54.
Family-- Wife Nancy, four children. Experience-- Community superintendent, Montgomery County public schools; principal, Montgomery and Prince George's counties.