A first-grade teacher in East Baltimore catches a 6-year-old child with an electronic beeper. What's a 6-year-old doing with a beeper? The kid's live-in uncle is a drug trafficker. The beeper's his way of avoiding the cops. Nobody's sure if the 6-year-old took the beeper as a toy or if he's been employed as a sort of unwitting narcotics middleman.
A second-grade teacher in West Baltimore discovers an amazing fact about her students' parents. They're under 25. Almost all of them, she says, had their babies while still in their middle teens and dropped out of school. ''I know you're teaching my son subtraction,'' one mother tells her, ''and I want to help. But I sometimes forget how to do it myself.''
A high school English teacher who left the city system several years back remembers teaching a class with 32 kids -- and 16 textbooks. The kids had to alternate nights when they could take the book home to study.
This is the school system of Baltimore, the Achilles' heel of the city, at its worst in the dying years of the 20th century.
Here it was in another time:
''Placidity enshrouds the Baltimore school system like a benediction today. Under the benevolent totalitarianism of the present school administration, the work of educating the young of the metropolis goes on day by day and year by year with scarcely a ripple of discontent or adverse criticism.''
Ernest J. Becker, a top-ranking city school administrator, uttered those words precisely 50 years ago. They tell us one of a few things:
A) Educators have always had a gift for bombastic, self-congratulatory hyperbole.
B) There really was a happier time in the city public schools.
Or, against all odds:
C) The schools haven't changed much at all.
Jerry Baum picks C. He's executive director of the Fund for Educational Excellence, which today released a report called ''The Lessons of Change: Baltimore Schools in the Modern Era.''
It's a lively history of what some see as a slow death -- not merely of an institution, but of a city's dreams for its children.
It is generally taken for granted that the schools are in deep trouble. The mayor makes it the emergency centerpiece of a political campaign and then awakens each morning wondering why change comes so slowly. A generation of parents looks at reading and math scores that have plunged like suicide notes off a building.
And always, whenever teachers gather, there are the anecdotes: The second-grade kid arrested for breaking into a car; he was on his way to a Cub Scout meeting. The fourth-grade girl with no fixed address; her mother lives -- and works -- out of a motel room.
Baum is not oblivious to any of this, but he seeks to put it into perspective. His group's study -- written by Evening Sun Op-Ed editor Mike Bowler -- is mostly a history of the last 30 years, designed to give perspective to ever-changing city education leaders.
But, between the lines, Baum says no one should mistake this for a rip at the system. In many ways, he says, today's schools are at least the equal of yesteryears'.
Scholastic Aptitude Test scores? ''Sure, the SATs are lower overall now,'' says Baum. ''But there's a wider group of people taking them than ever before. So you're going to have a greater range of abilities,which will bring down the overall average.''
Dropout rates? ''We're graduating more students now than we did 50 years ago. Back then, the graduation rate was probably 1 in 5. Today, maybe 1 in 2. What makes it unsatisfactory is that the world has changed. It's a much more complicated place, and we can't afford to have kids who aren't educated.''
The arguments sound reasonable -- to a point. There's still the gap between city and county performances, still the physical tension in some schools, still the white -- and black -- middle-class flight.
''All,'' says Baum, ''a reflection of the world outside the schools.''
A week ago, he watched the television production ''Separate But Equal,'' the story of the 1954 Supreme Court decision that integrated America's schools on paper but not in reality. As blacks began attending previously all-white schools, white parents pulled their kids out of those schools and fled the city.
It was 1960 when Baltimore's school system reached a virtual 50-50 racial split, and that's the point at which ''The Lessons of Change'' begins its examination.
It's not a very pretty picture. Example: Clifton Park Junior High had 2,023 whites and 34 blacks just after desegregation. Ten years later, it had 2,037 blacks and 12 whites.
Example: Garrison Junior High, in the same period, went from 2,504 whites and 12 blacks to 297 whites and 1,263 blacks.
The city's period of integration lasted barely a heartbeat and then was gone. As the city's neighborhoods became -- momentarily -- more integrated, the shaky transition in the communities and in the schools fed off of each other. Kids of different skin color who might have grown up learning about each other's lives instead were separated quickly.
''The Lessons of Change'' is the story of how it all happened. For those planning the future, it's instructive to note the pitfalls of the past.