Choir rehearsal was supposed to end at 5 p.m., but Patrick Lundy is still plowing ahead at 10 minutes past the hour. The director of the Eastern High School Choir seems oblivious to the time and the exigencies tugging at his young singers on this September afternoon: One girl has to catch a bus for night school; another is supposed to baby-sit her sister; a third needs to get to an after-school job at Best Buy.

Don't do that, Lundy warns when he catches someone eyeing the clock. He places his hands on the electric piano and, once again, makes the singers repeat a string of lofty notes from "The Battle Hymn of the Republic." They've been rehearsing this section of the song for 30 minutes.

"It sounds like your house is sinking," he tells the altos, where one girl is singing as flat as Kansas.

Facing them, Lundy rolls up his shirtsleeves. If they sing this right, the Battle Hymn should be able to lift an audience right out of its seats. He won't be satisfied until it does.

This dogged demand for excellence has been the Eastern High School Choir's hallmark for more than three decades. It's how Lundy and his predecessor, Joyce Garrett, built the ensemble into one of the D.C. public school system's most renowned cultural institutions. It's how the Eastern High School Choir has come to perform for every president since Ronald Reagan, to make frequent appearances at the Kennedy Center and on national television, to back up Aretha Franklin, Christina Aguilera and Stevie Wonder, and to bring in hundreds of thousands of dollars for college scholarships along the way.

But as the new school year gets underway at Eastern, those glories are only a distant memory. The choir -- and the school that houses it -- is struggling.

"Sit at the edge of your chairs," Lundy commands. "Don't slouch . . . I want it to sound like this." He strikes a note on the keyboard and belts out the elusive part. His hands sweep back and forth like a broom, showing the rhythm he wants. "You can go home when it's perfect," Lundy tells his singers.

Loretta Miller listens from the second row of the alto section. Some of the other girls chatter when Lundy looks elsewhere. Loretta, however, remains quiet, with her hands folded in her lap and her spine as rigid as a rod. The 16-year-old junior doesn't care what time rehearsal ends. Let it last all night. Few things make her as happy as being in the choir.

Well, maybe being accepted at Massachusetts Institute of Technology. That would make her happy, too. Neither of Loretta's parents went to college, but she thinks she might want to be an engineer. Her grades would seem to support such an ambition. She's a top student at Eastern, with nearly all A's. But success in this building doesn't always hold up in the broader world.

Abruptly, Lundy halts the rehearsal. Listen, he says. The year's first performance, a show for Eastern's student body, is just three days away. If you all are really knockouts up there, Lundy says, then more students will want to join the choir.

Despite its prestige and its scholarship money, the choir is in desperate need of bodies. The rehearsal room sits two-thirds empty, with stacks of unused chairs in the back. By October, Lundy hopes to have 75 to 100 singers. Right now, that seems like fantasy. Last week there were about 45 singers. Today there are 36.

Lundy finishes his recruitment spiel and returns to hammering home "The Battle Hymn of the Republic." It's almost 5:30. Suddenly, a soprano stands up. "Where are you going?" asks another soprano.

"I quit," announces the first girl, who grabs her things and walks out. Nobody else pays her any attention, not even Lundy. Rehearsal carries on as if this happens all the time.

BUILT IN 1923, Eastern High School stands about one mile from the U.S. Capitol and looks like a red brick castle, its two soaring spires capped with parapets. The windows are all new, and visitors discover a grand marble staircase just inside the front door.

Beyond that staircase, however, Eastern sheds any pretense of grandeur. The lighting is poor. The walls are painted and patched in discordant shades of off-white. The doors to classrooms are made of heavy, windowless steel. Mysterious holes open in hallway ceilings.

At the beginning of the school year, then-Superintendent Paul Vance announced that Eastern, along with Anacostia and Woodson, were the District high schools most in need of "transformation." It's easy to understand why Eastern made the list. The school's students performed abysmally on last year's Stanford 9 standardized tests. Almost 82 percent of Eastern students scored "below basic" in math; nearly 56 percent scored "below basic" in reading; and no student scored "advanced" in either category. Eastern, the school system declared, needed to "undergo reform at an aggressive, accelerated pace."

None of Eastern's problems are new. In 1978, The Washington Post ran a series of front-page articles about Eastern, describing burned-out teachers, nearly illiterate seniors, rampant absenteeism and dope smokers roaming the halls instead of attending class.

Joyce Garrett, who became a music teacher at Eastern in 1972, remembers that era differently. The school may have had its academic troubles, but it also had a sense of purpose, she says. "There were award-winning football teams, championship basketball teams and every kind of organization you can imagine," she recalls. "When there were basketball games, the gym would be packed. The teachers, we all went to the games. It was just a totally involved community, the school was back then." She acknowledges that she may have been wearing rose-colored glasses. "I don't know whether I thought it was so wonderful because I was just twentysomething and glad to be there, but I did think it was really special."

Garrett founded the Eastern High School Choir soon after arriving and poured herself into the lives of her singers. Many came from poor homes and faced "so many challenges in their lives, from drugs, from sexual abuse. I heard every story that anybody could tell anybody," she remembers. Parents in jail. Students living in homeless shelters. Smart kids dropping out. "I became the teacher, the counselor, somebody's mother . . . And it's not like you want to do this all the time. But you're called to do it. You have to do it. If somebody comes to you and says, 'Somebody stole my coat.' And it's 20 degrees outside, then somebody needs to get them a coat. So, you just go on and get them the coat."

The choir reached its musical apogee in 1988, when Garrett and her singers raised $160,000 to compete in the International Youth and Music Festival in Vienna, Austria. "I wanted them to perform on the highest possible level. I wanted them to be world class," Garrett says.

They were. After the choir placed first in the high school competition, it was featured in People magazine and on the front page of The Post. There was a segment on "CBS Sunday Morning." Reagan invited the singers to the White House.

But the choir's success in Austria also led to an unsettling realization. Only three of the 20 seniors who competed there went on to college. Garrett realized that her students were, at once, musical superstars and academic nobodies.

That's when Garrett developed a program called "Excellence Without Excuses." The choir would no longer be just about spawning great voices. It would be a vehicle for teaching values. Chief among those values: college.

Kaleen Cooper, who joined the choir in 1989 as a sophomore, says singing for Joyce Garrett changed his life. No one in his family had gone to college. No one ventured much beyond their Southeast Washington neighborhood. The choir broadened Cooper's horizons and enabled him to envision a different future for himself. He sang in Canada, in Florida, in New York City. "We traveled to a lot of places, met a lot of people that I wouldn't have met," says Cooper, now 29, who graduated from North Carolina A&T State University with a marketing degree and received an MBA and a master's in international affairs from Ohio University. As a graduate student, he worked in Brazil, Swaziland and South Africa. Today he works for a financial services company and lives with his wife and two children in Northern Virginia.

By the mid-'90s, most of the choir's singers were heading for universities: George Washington, Depauw, Hampton. A few even made it to Brown and Yale. At the end of every year, the choir's performance revenue is split among the college-bound seniors. Four-year members of the choir are eligible for at least $4,000. Three-year members can earn $3,000. Two-year members are eligible for $2,000. Last year, 18 or 19 seniors went on to college, taking $46,000 in scholarship money with them. Many seniors also receive additional scholarship money from the colleges that recruit them to sing in their choirs.

In 1995, Garrett formalized the choir's fundraising apparatus by starting a nonprofit called the Eastern Choral Society. That allowed the choir to tap foundation and corporate donors. (The Post has been a frequent patron. The Post also supports a general scholarship program at Eastern.) But the choir's success didn't seem to have much of an impact on the rest of the school. Eastern still called itself "The Pride of Capitol Hill," but Garrett was finding it tougher to teach there. "Students were becoming so hostile," says Garrett, who retired from teaching in 1999. "After school, the choir was coming along fine, but I had to be there all through the battles during the day. And I wasn't enjoying it."

While she continued to direct the choir full time, she began looking for a worthy successor.

She eventually turned the reins over to Patrick Lundy, a former high school music teacher and a respected composer and director of adult choirs. Lundy describes himself as the product of a happy, two-parent childhood in Thomasville, Ga. His mother bought him his first keyboard when he was only 2. Lundy knew that many of Eastern's students didn't have the same advantages. He says he wanted to "give back."

But Lundy lasted just two years as a music teacher at Eastern, calling what he found there "a rude awakening." In an ideal high school, he says, "there are rules and regulations that we all must abide by. Simple things like, you must be in class and not walk the halls. I had kids just skip class, come into class late. Most high schools have books and materials available. We would spend our own dollars, copy our own materials outside the building, because the copier machine was not working . . . Some of those things were frustrating."

Lundy decided to resume full-time work with his church and adult choirs. Now he comes to Eastern only after classes to rehearse the choir.

Because Lundy doesn't teach at Eastern anymore, he can't prowl the hallways, looking for singers, as Garrett used to do. He acknowledges that he doesn't know his singers as well as he once did. "When I was there, the kids would come during lunchtime and really talk about whatever," Lundy says. It was easier to keep track of who had made the honor roll or whose family had just been evicted.

"That connection is lost, and we are suffering because of it," Garrett says.

It is increasingly difficult to recruit enough singers. A shrinking talent pool is part of the problem. When the choir was founded in 1972, more than 2,000 students attended Eastern. This year enrollment has dropped to just over 900. Fewer kids at Eastern means fewer voices in the choir.

Apathy also plays a part. "Most of the students at Eastern don't do nothing," laments Onteia Cohen, a senior who serves as the choir's vice president and has sung with the group for four years. "They sit home and watch TV on the couch and eat." Boys, she says, are especially difficult to attract, because they often become targets of derision by classmates.

Senior Cofield Williams, the choir's president and one of its few basses, suggests only half-jokingly that the choir would attract more males if its recruitment posters pictured the "breasts and behinds" of the female singers instead of its current approach: "Sing Your Way to College."

The board overseeing the Eastern Choral Society has been pondering the choir's future. Maybe it's time to part ways with Eastern High School, says Garrett, who sits on the board: "We're wondering if we should make this a citywide program, that anyone from the city can come and sing in the choir, get our benefits and the scholarships . . . We are at a turning point. We have to do something different."

LUNDY LEADS THE CHOIR into an unruly auditorium for the first performance of the year. Only a few students are responsible for the ruckus, but it doesn't take many to poison the atmosphere. As the choir moves down a side aisle, a boy in the audience jeers at one of the tenors, saying loudly, "Look at that faggot."

Principal Norman Smith takes the microphone to deliver a short, pointed lecture on proper conduct in the auditorium. At 55, Smith stands well over 6 feet tall, with a chest like a bookcase, a balding head and a grizzled beard. By dint of size alone, Smith projects a quality desirable in high school principals: presence.

Eastern High School has been burning through a lot of administrators -- five principals in the past six years. Several were forced out. Smith has been on the job for a little more than a month. He had retired from the Baltimore County public school system after a six-year stint as principal at Milford Mill Academy. Then last summer a D.C. schools official called to offer Smith the helm at Eastern. The salary: $113,134. The commute: 1 hour 10 minutes. The opportunity: "To try to make a difference," Smith says.

Already, Smith has cracked down on Eastern's chronic class-cutters. During the school day, Smith's voice will crackle across the PA system to announce: "This is a clean sweep. Teachers close and lock your doors." Then the security guards round up any students caught in the hallway. They are herded into the auditorium, where detention slips are issued.

The word among teachers is that Smith's experienced approach might finally bring stability to the building. "The kids primarily ran this place last year," says history teacher Frederick Quick, who finds Smith "very supportive."

Some students dutifully listen to Smith's lecture on auditorium etiquette -- but mostly those who were behaving to begin with.

Backstage, the choir is preparing to perform before its first audience of the year. It's the home crowd, and no doubt the toughest the singers will face all year. "I'm scared y'all," Loretta Miller says.

Patrick Lundy steps onstage first, taking his place behind the piano, his back to the audience. The singers follow, filing onto a bank of risers. They wear bluejeans, a bouquet of solid-colored T-shirts and forced smiles. A weak applause greets their entrance.

Lundy strikes a note, and soft voices project into the auditorium, like light penetrating a darkroom through a keyhole:

Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord

He is trampling out the vintage where the grapes of wrath are stored,

He has loosed the fateful lightening of His terrible swift sword

His truth is marching on.

Glory! Glory! Hallelujah

There is drama in the faces and bodies of the singers, projecting both gravity and elation. When they sing, "The truth is marching," Cofield, the burly bass, rolls back his shoulders, inflates his chest and rocks his arms like a field marshal.

But the sound system doesn't do justice to the music. Lundy's piano is too loud. The risers are set too deep in the stage. It's impossible to appreciate, visually or acoustically, the richness of the show.

"I don't want to hear that [expletive] no more," says a student in the audience. Another never looks up from her homework.

When the choir finishes, though, a quartet of girls, front and center, stand and applaud. "Lorrretaaa," one shrill voice calls out lovingly.

LORETTA NEEDS TO REPEAT the name of her first-period class. "Did you say world culture?" I ask.

"No, floral culture," she corrects. Loretta shoves her textbooks into a locker, keeping a plastic grocery bag that is filled with green plastic grass. Loretta, a conservative dresser, wears bluejeans and a loose fitting T-shirt. That's not to say she doesn't sometimes bow to peer pressure when it comes to appearance. She stopped wearing her eyeglasses, she says, because "people kept telling me I looked studious." Now she settles for squinting at the chalkboard.

This is Loretta's first year at Eastern. She transferred here from H.D. Woodson High School, where she'd also been a choir member. "There was tone-deaf people in that choir. It would make the choir sound bad. [The director] had me singing soprano," says Loretta, an alto. She knew she'd find something better at Eastern.

Back in middle school, she'd heard the Eastern choir perform. She was blown away. "They sounded just like the radio," she remembers. So one afternoon, in the winter of her sophomore year at Woodson, Loretta made her way to Eastern.

She stood outside the rehearsal room and placed her ear to the door. "I was scared because my cousin," an Eastern alumnus, "said you got to be on your P's and Q's to be in the choir." A reference to Lundy's no-nonsense discipline and Himalayan demands.

Loretta stepped through the door and asked if she could join. She'd have to catch a bus and a train to make the trip across town. She might not be right on time for practice. Was that okay?

Yes, it was. Lundy installed Loretta in the alto section and also invited her to join the select choir -- the choir's varsity team. The choir immediately felt like home, Loretta says. Over the summer, she decided to transfer to Eastern.

Loretta's mother, Virginia Miller, was fine with her daughter's decision. Miller, a 37-year-old administrative assistant at Children's Hospital, says as long as Loretta is doing well in school, she doesn't try to influence her daughter's education. Virginia Miller graduated from Anacostia High School but didn't consider college. She was already a mother by then.

Loretta's older brother, Nate, is a 20-year-old sophomore at Virginia State University. The rest of the family -- Loretta, her mother, stepfather and toddler sister -- live in Northeast Washington, on a block of modest single-family homes with bars in the windows and rosebushes in the front yards.

Loretta's mother supports her daughter's ambition to become an engineer, though she chuckles when she talks about it. Loretta is prone to changing her mind, she says, "but I don't tell her that."

Loretta picked up the engineering idea last year after joining Leaders of Tomorrow, a mentoring program sponsored by the National Black MBA Association. During one meeting, she spoke with a computer engineer and said to herself, I can do that.

Loretta doesn't have to look far to find the source of her ambitious nature: "I think it's me mainly . . . I see what I like to do, and that's what I do."

Now a purple basket sits in front of Loretta. She made the basket by soaking yarn in glue and wrapping the yarn around a balloon. When the glue dried, she popped the balloon as the yarn kept its shape. Voila, a basket.

Today the assignment is to cut an opening in the basket and fill it with the green plastic grass that Loretta bought this morning. Then she's to decorate it with lacy white ribbon and, finally, place chocolates in the grass.

Loretta didn't especially want to take floral culture, the kind of class the school system vowed to eliminate at the beginning of the school year as part of Eastern's transformation. "Challenges in Daily Living" disappeared in the drive to inject more rigor into the curriculum; floral culture did not. Loretta says it was the only elective available when she transferred. She knows the class isn't going to help her get into MIT. She recently applied to the university's prestigious summer program for high school students that targets minorities. But Loretta is pessimistic about getting in. Though her GPA is nearly perfect, she scored just 850 out of 1600 on the SAT. That puts her above the District average and higher than most of her peers at Eastern. But last year the mean SAT score of students accepted into the MIT summer program was 1290.

Loretta's high school classes haven't prepared her all that well for the SAT. Most classes at Eastern, Loretta complains, don't make you think. "There's a lot of memorization." Worksheets are a common teaching tool.

Loretta makes an exception for Algebra II, which she finds challenging. One day in class, Nathaniel Ogunniyi, the math teacher, writes on the chalkboard to show his students how to find the inverse of a function. Most of the kids watch intently and scribble along, but a few talk loudly among themselves. Loretta looks up impatiently from her notebook. "Can y'all be quiet. Mr. Ogunniyi tryin' to show us something."

Loretta struggles against the mental dry rot, carrying James Baldwin's Go Tell It on the Mountain from class to class. She chose the classic story of a Harlem teenager's spiritual awakening for a book report for English. At first, Loretta found Baldwin's prose difficult to follow. Now, almost finished, she's hooked.

She's holding Baldwin when she walks into a dank basement classroom. This is chemistry. She looks at the chalkboard and says the questions have been up there for two weeks. Lately, chemistry has been her least favorite class. The teacher has been sick for several weeks, and the substitute, himself a graduate of Eastern High School, doesn't demand much. There's not even the pretend learning that characterizes too many courses at Eastern: no word searches, no definitions copied from a textbook glossary, no test-taking skills.

Today the substitute hands back some tests covering material that Loretta says she was tested on earlier in the year. Loretta looks at her paper: One hundred percent. Nothing else seems to be in the plan book. Loretta opens her algebra book. Earlier in the day, Ogunniyi announced an upcoming test. If nothing else, chemistry class serves as a study hall.

Doing little more than running her mouth, a girl at the back of the class soon calls out: "These walls about to fall in on us" and utters a curse. The outburst perturbs the substitute, who is sitting at his desk watching a movie on a portable DVD player. He politely asks the girl not to curse. Not five seconds later, the f-word projects from his DVD player.

"You sitting there, and your DVD cursing," the girl says.

A little later, the principal opens the door. With a drawn expression, Smith surveys the lack of activity in the classroom. He leaves, returns to have a word with the substitute, then calls me into the hallway.

"What's going on in there?" he asks.

"Nothing," I say. "The teacher's watching a DVD. The kids are talking. Loretta's doing math."

After sending me back into the classroom, Smith once again asks to speak with the substitute. When the substitute returns to the classroom, he turns off the DVD player and asks the students to turn to Chapter 6 in their chemistry book.

Loretta looks up from her algebra. "We just now did that chapter," she says.

JESUS SAVE me,

Sanctify me,

Wash me in the cleansing

Blood of the Lamb.

It's gospel day for the choir, and a blast of faith reverberates through the third-floor rehearsal room.

The choir is up to six basses, though one of them is practically tone deaf, and another one barely parts his lips when singing. The tenors are hovering at about nine. The uptick in male singers seemed to follow a pizza party where young men in the hallways were welcomed in for a slice. One of the pizza-party recruits briefly attended rehearsals. He soon left the choir, however, because his job at McDonald's got in the way. The boy who was jeered at during the assembly hasn't been around much.

All of that is forgotten on gospel day. Most of these kids have been singing gospel in neighborhood churches since they could see over a pew. So come gospel day, it's as if the glass slipper suddenly fits. The choir doesn't always seem as comfortable with the rest of its repertoire, which ranges from Beethoven to Ellington. One song is sung in Latin; even those in English require rigid posture and sharp vocal control.

But gospel music means a homecoming. Lundy's arms and face dance as he conducts to music provided by a four-piece band. The joyous sound rolls through the corridors of the school, attracting an impromptu audience. Students, teachers and custodians gather by the door to listen.

The kids' vowels are long, loose and tweaked-out. Their explosive voices emit from somewhere deep and more ancient than themselves. As they sing, the choir sways like a bed of sea anemones in an inexorable ocean of rhythm.

ONE AFTERNOON Lundy can't make it to rehearsal, so Joyce Garrett fills in.

"Let's learn a spiritual right quick," Garrett says to the students. She lays her hands on the keyboard and begins teaching. The basses in particular respond to her sharp directions.

The students giggle at her range. She can sing, with equal facility, the part of the basses or the sopranos.

But from within the soprano section, Garrett finds small, insidious lapses. One soprano sits mute; in 45 minutes she hasn't uttered a single note. Another stands up to get her purse and removes a case of lip gloss, which she applies while Garrett is speaking. The lip gloss is passed back to another girl. A fourth soprano mutters "shut up" when the section is exhorted to work harder, though only her immediate neighbors hear the insult.

Such behavior may be common elsewhere at Eastern, but in this room, for Joyce Garrett, it's blasphemy. If excuses were accepted here -- and they're not -- then Garrett and Lundy would have plenty of reasons to pardon lax performance.

One of their singers, a 16-year-old African immigrant, is exhausted all the time. She's desperately trying to earn her high school diploma before her visa expires. She goes to night school 20 hours a week and is often doing homework until 2 a.m. Yet she never misses rehearsal.

Then there's Michelle Wooten, a 17-year-old senior who wants to be a nurse. She also plans, within months, to be a mother. She has decided to keep the baby, though she and the father are no longer together. Michelle has already been told that she can't perform with the choir while she's pregnant, but her college scholarship won't be affected. And that, she says, is what she cares about most.

Garrett understands the daily challenges that many students in the choir face. But she accepts nothing less than their best effort, and right now, they're not giving it. She steps from behind the piano, spreads her arms wide. Her chin drops to her chest. A hush falls across the room.

"If that's the way you're going to sing for me, I'm not coming" here anymore, she announces. Garrett's voice is calm, loving and unequivocal. She gathers her purse and quietly exits the room. Rehearsal is done.

CHRISTMASTIME, the choir's busy season. Two days ago, the students performed as part of a larger concert at the National Building Museum with President Bush in attendance.

A week earlier, they participated in the Kennedy Center Honors. Their dressing room was just down the way from that of Garth Brooks. During a dress rehearsal, they spotted Dan Aykroyd and jostled one another to get a better look at LL Cool J, who was standing onstage practicing a speech. You can't be like this, a stagehand scolded them. In a few hours, you're being recorded for national television.

Today the choir is bouncing down the Beltway in a yellow school bus, on the way to ExxonMobil's corporate offices in Fairfax County. The energy giant has hosted Eastern's singers every holiday season since 1998. This is one of the choir's more lucrative engagements. The choir pulls in $2,500 for a performance that lasts under an hour.

Patrick Dexter, community relations adviser at ExxonMobil, remembers the first time he heard the choir: "The room was packed, standing room only. They brought down the house."

While an audience of engineers and secretaries gathers, Garrett takes the microphone and gives a brief history of the choir. She describes it as a "vehicle for teaching a lot more than music." With a grin, she talks about how routine it is to have all of the seniors go on to college.

With that, the performance begins. Lundy plays piano. Garrett directs. Then they switch rolls. Senior Garselle Davis steps from the alto section toward the microphone. She's singing a solo part in "Silent Night."

The other seniors sometimes rib Garselle because she's so far behind in the college-application process. She's not even sure where she wants to apply. That's the kind of culture Garrett and Lundy have created: You're not cool if you're not running down a dream.

But the audience only sees a girl with chipmunk cheeks and a radiant voice. She moves her hand across her body, diva-like. After she finishes, the audience applauds enthusiastically.

"Aren't they awesome?" exclaims a woman in a business suit.

EASTERN HIGH SCHOOL is slowly burning. It's early spring, and Eastern has been hit with four arsons in as many school days. Once again, the screech of a fire alarm has evacuated the building. The fires usually occur around this time, during or just after lunch. The arsonist knows that burning even a few fistfuls of notebook paper will lead to evacuation of the school. From there, skipping out is a cinch.

Right now there are only about 40 students waiting out front to get back inside. The rest have left, either in glee or exasperation. A bored-looking huddle of firefighters stands by; the small fires are often out by the time the trucks arrive.

Loretta sits outside the school on a low brick wall. The sun shines in her almond eyes when she looks up from her algebra book. It's hard to focus on math, though she views recent events with a touch of humor. "The school day is not complete until there's a fire," she says with a laugh.

Timothy Elliot, a computer teacher, walks past. "This is a felony," he says. "Whoever's doing this needs to be punished, really punished."

Loretta smiles at Elliot, who keeps a list of SAT words on the chalkboard in his classroom.

"I can't remember what 'nuance' means," she says to Elliot. Loretta is planning to take the SATs at least once more. She's recently finished a private prep course and is hoping to enroll in another soon.

Elliot takes his hands from his pockets, relieved by the shift in conversation. "A nuance is a subtle detail," the teacher says.

"Oh, okay," Loretta says. She turns back to her math.

Smith emerges from the building. He'd been inside with some firefighters, showing them the pitiful pile of ash that has caused so much disruption. There had been fires earlier in the year. But never this many in a row. At first, the fires were started in bathroom trash cans. Then Smith ordered the bathrooms locked. After that, students who needed to use a restroom had to track down a teacher or custodian with a key. Then the fires migrated to the hallway trash cans. So Principal Smith removed those. Now garbage collects on the floor faster than the custodians can sweep it up.

Today for the first time, the arsonist has burned a locker. "What am I going to do?" Smith wonders. "Take out all the lockers?"

"I'm tired," he says. "This is totally ridiculous." Yet, he says, he isn't considering returning to retirement. "Our children need help. They just don't realize they need help."

The next day, Smith stands before the student body in the gym. He's called an emergency assembly to address the arsons. "Good morning," he says into a microphone. The students don't stop talking. "Good morning," he repeats four more times. No effect. He asks the teachers to help quiet the students. Some of the teachers help. Many do not. A few teachers are carrying on conversations of their own.

Smith begins his speech anyway. "There is a big concern about the tone in the building," he says. "You are teenagers, mostly African American teenagers. The world awaits you." Finally, if only for a moment, the whole room is quiet.

"Our job is to make you successful," Smith says. That cannot happen in an environment where students and teachers don't feel safe. "If you're coming to high school for nonsense, don't come to school." He is addressing that small, ruinous fraction: the clowns, the hall wanderers, the arsonist(s). "We'll find other arrangements for you." The crowd breaks into applause.

But the rest of Smith's speech doesn't play as well. When he announces a "monetary reward" for catching the arsonist, there's no buzz from the students, and one teacher quietly chides her boss. "He should say 'money,' because these students don't understand 'monetary.' "

Smith talks about wanting Eastern "to regain the stature it once had." A different teacher says to a nearby colleague: "But you've got to have the right population. These kids don't care." Smith mentions the school motto -- "The Pride of Capitol Hill" -- and there are outright scoffs from the audience.

"We need to start a new day," the principal concludes. Just then an 11th-grade boy -- a sometime member of the choir -- begins clapping his hands like a metronome. He's not applauding. He's lobbing a hand grenade. The clap races around the gymnasium and momentarily takes over the room. A few students try to start a stadium-style wave. It's a collective thumb in Smith's eye -- one compounded by another fire that afternoon. This one empties the building just 20 minutes before the end of the school day, so it probably isn't a ploy for ditching class. Rather, the fire seems to be a message for Smith: You are not the boss here.

COFIELD WILLIAMS slides a tape into a VCR as a bus takes the choir to Lincoln University in Pennsylvania for a campus tour. It's a recording of the choir's 25th-anniversary concert in 1997. "That is when the choir used to be good," says a voice from the back of the bus.

"The choir still is good," Cofield says defensively. "We need to get some tenors, but the choir is still good."

The tenor section imploded earlier in the year. One boy quit because he wanted to play hockey. Another -- beautiful voice, stellar stage presence -- was kicked out of the choir because he was simply too disrespectful to Lundy. Another tenor wound up in the hospital with chest pains and stopped coming to school for a while.

Joshua Mitchell, a standout who's aiming for the Juilliard School in New York, has become the choir's lone tenor. For that reason, Lundy and Garrett have decided to cancel the choir's annual spring concert. With only one tenor, it's better not to perform at all than to perform below standard.

"It was kind of a disappointment," Cofield acknowledges. "But I understand the situation."

Cofield came to Eastern three years ago specifically to sing. Some guys at school might mock the choir's performers, but that doesn't bother Cofield. As president of the choir, he's the top dog in this domain. Cofield often hassles other singers about attendance, permission slips and behavior. He can also be the choir's comedian in chief. During one bus ride, he grabbed the microphone and delivered a mock sermon, singing out holy hosannas between fits of laughter. He says he wants to be a teacher. He might consider Lincoln, the oldest historically black college in the country and alma mater to Langston Hughes and Thurgood Marshall. Lincoln often recruits Eastern students for its concert choir.

The rolling hills around Lincoln University are spiked with grain silos. The streets of Washington seem to be a million miles away. The avenues of Cambridge, Mass., seem even farther.

"I didn't get into MIT," Loretta says, referring to her summer program application. She's walking at the tail end of the tour around Lincoln's small, pastoral campus. The voice of the tour guide, a choir alumnus, is lost in the howl of a cold wind. "I know it was my SATs," she says. The rejection letter consoled her by saying there were only 40 slots and more than 700 applications. "I'm not hurt. There will be other opportunities."

Loretta looks around. "I don't think I'm going to apply here." Earlier in the year, she'd been considering historically black colleges and universities. Recently, though, she says she's not much interested in them. She's gone to black schools all her life. She says she's ready for some diversity. She's thinking about the University of Michigan. It has an engineering school. Her mother and stepfather have offered to drive her up for a visit this summer.

A little later, Cofield, along with fellow seniors Onteia Cohen and LaTavia Conner, stand in the office of William Garcia, the director of the concert choir at Lincoln. He says that the Eastern High School Choir has been "impeccably trained." Garcia listens to each of the students sing individually. He exercises their voices, playing scales.

"You people have unspeakable talent," Garcia says at the end of the auditions.

LORETTA SLIDES THROUGH the alto section to the microphone at center stage and launches into her brief solo in "From Where I Stand," a patriotic anthem. Her voice has matured over the past nine months, but she's not happy with her performance tonight at Bethesda Baptist Church in Northeast Washington.

"Was I flat?" Loretta asks backstage at intermission. Her shoulders slump with dismay. None of the other choir members says anything. She already knows the answer.

"I was flat," she declares with embarrassment. Recently she was chosen as the president of next year's choir, and she knows that the other singers are looking to her as an example. At least you knew the words, someone comforts her.

Okay, we're back on, Patrick Lundy calls out in a stage whisper. Loretta and the other singers, dressed in blue-and-red concert robes, noiselessly fall into formation and return to the sparsely filled sanctuary.

This will be one of their final performances of the spring. The school year is almost over, and so are Loretta's dreams of becoming an engineer. Now she sees herself majoring in communications and emerging from college as a motivational speaker. Last marking period, she got a B in Algebra II: "I'm good at math. I like it, but I don't think that's in my heart." She also got a B in floral culture. She admits this with a guilty smile and can only shrug her shoulders.

Most of the seniors are heading off to college. Cofield Williams has decided to attend Delaware State University, though he's still awaiting his financial aid package. Onteia Cohen is going to Morgan State University on "basically a full ride." Garselle Davis plans to study at Bennett College, mainly because that's the alma mater of Joyce Garrett. Michelle Wooten wants to attend the University of the District of Columbia part time while her infant son, DeAndre, is at day care.

But not all of the choir's graduates are moving on to higher education. One senior, an alto, has no plans for next year. She says she's going to a trade school, though she doesn't know where, or what she's going to study. And the choir itself still faces an uncertain future. Fundraising this year did not go well. After it disburses its scholarships, the Eastern Choral Society may face a deficit.

Garrett has come up with a new plan to inject life into the choir. With the school system's blessing, Eastern plans to launch a performing arts academy next fall. It will feature an expanded curriculum -- music theory, sight reading, vocal music -- to students across the city. Garrett and Lundy are hoping the school will attract a wave of new talent, though it's not clear if they will have the resources to make the academy a success.

Juan Baughn, the District's assistant superintendent for high schools, initially tells me he thinks the new program can be pulled off with Eastern's existing teachers. The current number of music teachers at Eastern: one. Apprised of this, Baughn concedes that another music teacher may have to be hired. "I can't give details at this time," he says. "We may have to phase this in over two years."

At Bethesda Baptist, Lundy stands before the congregation. The second half of the performance is going to be all gospel. "We're not in an academic setting," he calls out. "We're gonna have some church in here tonight, show you what these kids can do."

He turns to face his singers. With one quick gesture, he releases sweet thunder from 47 young mouths. Half a dozen choir alumni, home from college, are singing with their former schoolmates. The sound is ferocious, lifting the small audience to its feet. Loretta's face, like those around her, is at once joyous, pained and illuminated with a faith in limitless possibility. When the students smile, it's not because Lundy told them to -- though he did -- but because they are singing. There is nothing they'd rather be doing.

Tyler Currie is a frequent contributor to the Magazine. He, along with Joyce Garrett and Patrick Lundy, will be fielding questions and comments about this article Monday at 1 p.m. on www.washingtonpost.com/liveonline. To hear an audio clip of the Eastern High School Choir singing, go to www.washingtonpost.com/education.