The band of youngsters ambles down Carey Street, laughing and kicking bent soda cans in the gutter.
Several of the children disappear into a neighborhood store. The others trudge across the street to school.
They are 30 minutes late, then 35 after they stop to examine a dead rat on the pavement in front of the school building.
The rat lies beside a row of tulips, whose emerging stems nudge aside broken bottles and other trash.
Welcome to Diggs-Johnson Middle School, in the Pigtown section of Southwest Baltimore.
You've heard about tough conditions in public schools -- shortages, violence, troubled students and such. You can find them all at Diggs-Johnson.
You also can find students learning despite the bleak surroundings.
The parking lot is crumbling, a chain-link fence in front of the school is falling down and the name on the building is wrong. In big block letters it says "Carroll Park School." That place closed three years ago.
Physical education classes play kickball behind the school on a paved playground strewn with rubbish. Children's shoes crunch on bits of broken glass.
Alongside the lot is a scraggly hillside, clearly visible from the cafeteria.
Truants from other schools and derelicts sometimes turn this hillside into a grotesque stage: They perform obscene acts and also hurl rocks at the cafeteria.
The rocks carom off the Plexiglas windows like pucks at a hockey game. In the lunchroom, students eat and duck their heads.
Welcome to Diggs-Johnson, where the good kids struggle against a surplus of trouble.
In December, a frantic student ran up to Principal Linda Beechener as she stood outside the front entrance. The child had a black eye and a bloody nose.
Hot on his heels came the assailant, also a student, plus the assailant's mother and sister. When the trio approached the injured youth, the mother shouted, "Get him! Get him again!"
The principal intervened, as she often does, and managed to stop the fight.
She once received a sprained shoulder for her trouble. Now she's learning karate, along with several other faculty members.
"I'm risking my life if I [break up fights involving outsiders]," says Ms. Beechener, 46. "I don't know if they have a knife or a gun. But as long as it's my kids, I'll do it and pray that I don't get hurt."
Welcome to Diggs-Johnson
Welcome to Diggs-Johnson, one of Baltimore's better middle schools, where students and staff must adapt to conditions that most likely would produce a public outcry if found in a suburban school:
* Going to and from school, boys and girls are assaulted and robbed on school grounds, on sidewalks and at bus stops by teen-age thugs who prowl the neighborhood.
* The building is no refuge. Students have been beaten by schoolmates in classrooms, hallways and the cafeteria. Teachers, too, have been jostled, cursed and threatened.
Says guidance counselor Beverly Winter: "There are an awful lot of really nice, decent kids in this school. It's a shame what they have to put up with, the feeling of fear."
* A few students are walking time bombs. Perhaps 10 percent of Diggs-Johnson's 601 students are often disruptive and occasionally violent. Some troublemakers have police records.
* Essential supplies -- from towels to paper clips -- are tightly rationed. In a girls' bathroom, the only available roll of toilet paper is attached to the top of a stall with a heavy chain.
* Many students can't take textbooks out of the building, because several classes share the same books. This means that time is wasted copying homework assignments.
"In 10 years, I've never been able to issue books to students," says Frances Van Cleve, a Spanish teacher.
* In the library, more than half the space for books is empty. A student who wants to read about occupants of the White House might have to settle for "The Arrow Book of Presidents," so old it ends with Lyndon Baines Johnson.
Many of the books "are older than me," says librarian Mary Duginske, who's 43.
* Student lockers remained broken for more than a year, meaning students had to carry coats and other belongings around with them all day.
* There is no heat in the boys' locker room, and the overhead pipes sometimes leak water on students' clothes. In the bathroom there, the urinals overflow regularly, and the toilets are usually filthy.
On one of the two commodes, a used piece of toilet paper was stuck -- it seemed welded -- to the seat for most of the school year.
The woman in the middle
Every workday, Linda Beechener enters this pressure-cooker as principal of Diggs-Johnson.
She's known as a capable administrator and her school is highly regarded. In the past two years, nearly 10 percent of the graduates have gone on to such elite high schools as Polytechnic, Western, City College and the School for the Arts.
Moreover, Diggs-Johnson is one of 14 Baltimore schools in a pilot program allowing them greater administrative freedom from the school system's headquarters on North Avenue.