The fight to save Annapolis High School was hatched in a chat room. Over two weeks, the after-school movement grew in the din of Annapolis coffee shops and pizza parlors. What started with three students swelled to 20, then 50.
In their first public act, more than 40 students launched a campaign yesterday to stop Superintendent Kevin Maxwell from forcing all 193 staff members to reapply for their jobs. Wearing neon green armbands and waving signs, they told the Anne Arundel County school board that Maxwell's Jan. 24 proposal would crush a demoralized school.
Minutes later, the teens' emotional pleas gave way to cheers as the board unanimously reinstated principal Donald Lilley.
"It's a small victory, but it's only the first step," said sophomore Molly Horton. "Now, we have to figure out how to keep our teachers from leaving."
Lilley, who was not at the board meeting, said later that the job he inherited in 2004 has grown tougher.
"I'll be spending a lot of time at school," he said. "We know we have to do something different. We know we want all of our students to be successful."
Maxwell, who said his order to have faculty and staff reapply for their jobs was needed to turn around four years of anemic academic performance and thwart a state takeover, told the students during a break in the meeting: "We may not agree, but it's nice to see you all here. Thank you for coming."
To boost reading test performance and graduation rates, the superintendent wants to make Annapolis High a year-round school. Pending board approval, he's also offering sign-up and performance bonuses to staff members tapped to stay.
But several teachers have said they don't want to return, and the board's decision to bring Lilley back has only cemented their resolve.
"I think that the board made a mistake," said a 15-year teacher who asked not to be named. "You put the same principal in place and what's going to change? Nothing. He's just going to bring back the rest of the administrators that he's got now. By doing this, the board is saying that Lilley has been right and we as teachers have been wrong."
It's not the first time senior Allie Toomey has seen Annapolis teachers disheartened. When she was a freshman, morale was low because of an unpopular principal who was forced out in midyear. Now, she told the board, she doesn't want to graduate "in the debris of broken spirits of staff ... and students."
To stop the exodus, the students are planning walkouts and a letter-writing blitz and are gathering support from students at neighboring Broadneck High School.
Though school board Vice Chairman Eugene Peterson said he was touched by the students' passion, he said their demonstration illustrated a key issue at the school: "Looking at the crowd, I didn't see the diversity of the school represented here."
County education officials are concerned that, in general, African-American students at Annapolis High perform well below their white peers on state and national tests.
"It's just symbolic of what we know about Annapolis High, that it's a school within a school where education is frankly separate and unequal," Peterson said.
Sun reporter Nina Sears contributed to this article.