The back yards in Annapolis' Hunt Meadow neighborhood give way to forests of oak and pine. Cutout Santas guard manicured lawns, and stray basketballs nest in piles of brown leaves.
Completing the Norman Rockwell tableau is a brick schoolhouse, Annapolis Middle, that's so close the children can walk to it.
But almost no one does.
Annapolis Middle School is the emptiest in the Baltimore area. The huge building can hold 1,736 children. This year, 531 go there. In a region where many schools are well over capacity, Annapolis Middle is barely 31 percent full.
Many families left the school long ago. They heard stories of girls carrying weapons for protection, of hallway fights and of four public housing projects feeding into the school.
"This being an upper-middle-class neighborhood, people can afford to make other choices, and they do," said Margie Kling, whose two daughters attend private St. Mary's School.
But instead of falling into the hopeless downward spiral of so many troubled schools, Annapolis Middle is rebounding.
Test scores and enrollment are inching upward. Children are taking advanced classes and staging Shakespearean plays. Motivated teachers take students to Washington Wizards games as a reward for good work.
A crusading principal has brought energy and hope to a place that once had neither. And, cautiously, private school families are giving Annapolis Middle another look.
"People used to say that unless you had your own knife, you better not go there," said Marlies Empey, who transferred her son, Owen, from the $9,100-a-year St. Anne's Day School to Annapolis Middle this year. "But in the last few years I've heard better and better things. I think the tide is turning."
When Annapolis Middle School opened in 1964 on the southern tip of the city, near the South River, it drew children from all over Anne Arundel County. By 1976, the school had 2,276 children and was so crowded it ran on split shifts, some students arriving before dawn, others leaving after dark.
Some who went to the school in its early days recall tension between children from different neighborhoods and between blacks and whites.
"I had a friend in elementary school who was black, and at junior high we didn't hang around together because of pressure from our friends," said Susie Collins, 47, who attended the school in the late 1960s.
The school population declined as word of the tensions spread and as public and private schools opened. By 1988, enrollment had fallen to 634 children. In 1998, when a student was arrested for making bomb threats against the school, 508 attended Annapolis Middle.
Last year, the school's enrollment bottomed out at 486.
"When I first came here," said Reginald Farrare, who has been principal for five years, "some people told me they were afraid to send their children to Annapolis Middle School."
Parents complained two years ago when schools Superintendent Carol S. Parham proposed moving about 275 children from Mayo Elementary to Annapolis Middle while a new Mayo school was built. Parham received a death threat over the plan, though Mayo parents said they had nothing to do with it. In the end, the children were not moved.
At 31 percent of its capacity, Annapolis Middle is the least-populated school in the area that includes Baltimore and the city's surrounding counties. The least-populated schools in Baltimore City are Federal Hill Elementary and the Dr. Roland N. Patterson Senior Academy - both at 37 percent capacity.
In the crowded Howard County school system, the least-populated school is Ellicott Mills Middle, at 71 percent capacity. Dundalk Middle is the least populated Baltimore County school, with 55 percent of its seats filled.
But many suburban schools are well beyond their capacity. At some schools, students must eat lunch before 10 a.m. and attend class in parking lot trailers.
The most crowded schools in the region are Howard County's Pointers Run Elementary (51 percent over capacity), Baltimore County's Johnnycake Elementary (45 percent over capacity) and Anne Arundel's Davidsonville Elementary (42 percent over capacity).
The families that stuck with Annapolis Middle said their neighbors who favored private schools made them wonder whether Annapolis would best serve their children - leading many newcomers to give up on the school before even giving it a chance.
"They make you feel like you made the wrong decision," said Wrenn Gooding, who has a daughter who graduated from Annapolis Middle last year and another in sixth grade now. "But you have a better community if everyone goes to school together.
"If you don't come into a school and see how it works, it's not fair to criticize it," she added. "I've been in there, and my kids are getting a good education."