When James Hamilton was chosen to lead Severna Park High School last summer, the top-performing Anne Arundel high school was on the brink of losing its accreditation.
Now Hamilton, who is preparing to retire next month, is leaving amid another controversy, over allegations of rampant cheating among students.
Hamilton, who as principal salvaged the school by aggressively lobbying and completing facility upgrades, will end his 39-year career with the county public schools, saying he wants to travel and spend more time with his family, especially his two granddaughters.
"I've worked a long time toward this," he said yesterday from his school office.
The school board could appoint a replacement as soon as its meeting Wednesday.
"We are thankful to Dr. Hamilton, as we are to all our retirees, for the work they have done in furthering the mission of our school system," said Bob Mosier, a county schools spokesman.
Leo Vidal, an active parent at Severna Park High, said Hamilton's retirement "was unexpected, but not entirely surprising."
"He has spent a long time in the district and has done a lot to set the school heading in the right direction, particularly with some of the facilities concerns we had," said Vidal, referring to the school's perennial struggle with an aging heating and cooling system, and other building problems.
Hamilton started in the district in 1968, teaching earth science to ninth-graders at what was then Bates Junior High. He has been in administration since 1981, working at Broadneck, Southern, South River and Severna Park high schools.
Hamilton, who spearheaded a mission at Severna Park to make the school No. 1 in the state and increase the number of students taking and passing Advanced Placement exams, spent last month dealing with a scandal that erupted after three students allegedly sneaked a sealed packet of questions to the AP U.S. history exam into a bathroom to find answers in a review manual.
The lack of immediate action against the alleged cheaters spurred an outcry at the school, where top-ranked students said cheating was pervasive.
A student-led survey of 337 students found that 70 percent thought a culture of cheating existed at the school and that 81 percent thought at least a quarter or more of the students were cheating.
A report by the test's parent company criticized the school for lax oversight and poor test proctoring during the exam and ordered the school system to force the 42 other students in that May 11 testing group to retake the history exam. The three alleged cheaters were not allowed to take the test again but kept their grades in the course.
After the report, students and parents blamed Hamilton's push for excellence for creating a culture of pressure in which students felt compelled to cheat to keep test scores high.
Hamilton said he was trying to keep the bar high for a successful school.
"The hope of all schools is to continually improve performance. That's what I was trying to do," he said. "People sometimes have bad judgment regardless of what the goals and aspirations are. Sometimes they show a lack of integrity despite what we teach them."
Hamilton said last month that he would create a committee of parents, students and school personnel to study testing procedures at the school and develop an honor code that would delineate clear rules for test proctoring and sanctions against cheating.
His retirement, parents said, leaves the honor code development in limbo.
A group of Severna Park parents met last evening to discuss ways to advance that effort.
Vidal said parents are frustrated because the district and the school were not open about the process they used to determine whether students had cheated and how to punish them if they did.