The mood was about as giddy as a group of elementary school students at recess.
Anne Arundel County Schools Superintendent Kevin M. Maxwell, who had initiated a widely unpopular overhaul of Annapolis High School, stood smiling and giggling, his cheeks rosy, in the school's cafeteria after finishing a news briefing announcing that the school had for the first time in six years met federal testing benchmarks.
"I'm excited," Maxwell said. "This is great news." After a pause he continued, "Did you get the part about me being excited?"
Annapolis High School, which had failed to make what is called "adequate yearly progress" on annual standardized tests since 2003, celebrated the news that the school had finally met federal testing standards under No Child Left Behind.
Though state officials are set in the coming weeks to announce the statewide results of its high schools' standardized test scores, which determine whether a school makes AYP, Maxwell made an appeal to state schools Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick for permission to publicly share the good news about Annapolis High School early.
While the long-embattled school's accomplishment is certainly noteworthy, it represents a first step on the road to recovery: The school must make AYP for two consecutive years to be removed from the state's monitoring program, and it still remains under the close watch of Maxwell as part of his 3-year-restructuring plan, which was ultimately approved by state education officials. In addition to not making AYP, the school failed to reach graduation rate requirements in 2006 and 2007.
AYP targets are a key component of No Child Left Behind, setting percentage goals for proficiency on the English and math portions of annual standardized tests in eight subgroups of students. The required percentage of passing students rises each year until it reaches 100 percent in 2012.
Maxwell was under considerable pressure from a large swath of his constituency to remedy the problem and from state officials who had the authority under No Child Left Behind to impose sanctions ranging from a complete staff takeover to longer school days or even a state takeover, when he began an overhaul of the long-troubled school in January 2007.
He announced the "zero-basing" of the school's employees, forcing all 193 of its staff members to reapply for their jobs. Close to 50 percent of the staff turned over. Teachers were required to commit to work at the school for three years, all staff was required to work year-round, and the school launched a summer program for incoming at-risk freshmen and a ninth-grade academy to foster relationships with teachers.
Though state officials have said it does not "take over" chronically underperforming schools but rather works with local districts to improve the situation, the looming threat of severe state sanctions threatened an embarrassment to local school officials.
Maxwell said last week he felt "vindicated" but cautioned that there was more work to do.
Principal Donald Lilley, who was forced to reapply for his position under Maxwell's restructuring, credited the superintendent's aggressive stance for shaking up the school.
"It was valuable for the faculty and staff," Lilley said. "Now they know why we're working so hard. We see the fruits of our labor. But we've got to keep going. Annapolis High School has the potential to be the very best, and that's where we want to go."
Among the changes at the school was the creation of more after-school tutoring and other programming, including an effort for juniors and seniors to mentor younger students.
The school was in a celebratory mood when the news was announced last week. Maxwell, who has forged a close relationship with Lilley in monthly meetings and frequent phone conversations on the school's development, visited last Monday to deliver the news to the faculty and staff.
"There were some tears," Maxwell said, recalling the scene. "There were some high fives and some hugs."
The news was announced publicly Tuesday. Lilley received congratulatory calls from politicians. And the student body, which had for so long labored to make the grade, seemed to exhale collectively a sigh of relief.
Kwame Abrah, 17, and Kevin Dudley, 16, both seniors in the International Baccalaureate program at Annapolis High with plans for college next year, were in their 4th period History of the Americas class when the announcement came over the loud speaker.
Dudley quipped, "It's not just Yale or jail," repeating a popular mantra about the seemingly disparate achievement levels of students at the school.
"The whole class was screaming," Abrah said. "We had to work really hard to make it. There was that threat in the back of our heads if we didn't make it we would be taken over. It feels really good to leave the school knowing we passed."