Jerona Stewart, a week away from her eighth-grade graduation, spent the warm night on a porch in the Petworth section of Northwest Washington, chatting with her best friend, her boyfriend and his mother.

But as she walked away Tuesday night, a car with its headlights out cruised by, and someone opened fire. Jerona Stewart, shot in the back, collapsed in the street and soon died.

Last night, her mother thought over and over of how her 15-year-old girl -- her only daughter -- dreamed of someday studying at the Corcoran Gallery of Art. Maybe, Jerona figured, she'd grow up to teach small children about art, sharing the gift she would polish someday, recalled her mother, Carol Stewart.

But she would never get that chance.

"When I saw her," Carol Stewart said, "she'd already passed away. I didn't think it was my baby. . . . I said, no, this can't be for real . . . not my baby.

"It looked like she was just sleeping," said Stewart, 45, as tears flowed down her tired face.

D.C. police are investigating the drive-by shooting that killed Jerona Stewart late Tuesday in the 4600 block of 15th Street NW, a tree-lined middle- and working-class neighborhood.

Jerona, her mother said, was a straight-A student at McFarland Middle School who was so generous with her friends that she shared her clothes. Her mother said she once caught Jerona tossing a bundle of jeans and T-shirts out of a second-floor bedroom window to a friend.

Jerona, who lived on Princeton Place, less than two miles from where she died, had been sitting on the front porch when her boyfriend agreed to walk her and her friend to the corner.

Suddenly, a car rolled up. A young man peered out a window and warned: "Run, there's gonna be some shooting real soon," Stewart said her daughter's friend told her. The car went to the other end of the block, turned around and began driving down the 4600 block of 15th Street again, Stewart said she was told. Shots rang out, and Jerona and her friends ran into a nearby alley.

Stewart was shot once in her back, screamed out her best friend's name for help, grabbed her stomach, then collapsed on the ground.

Her boyfriend moved her shaking body into a car and sped to Howard University Hospital, leaving behind a trail of police officers who chased after him not knowing what had happened. She was unconscious when she arrived and died at 11:32 p.m., police said.

Bayyinah Tariq, a lawyer who lives in the neighborhood, said she heard a "pop -- pop -- pop," but thought nothing of it. She figured "the kids had gotten some fireworks already," but later learned that someone had been shot.

A neighbor said the normally quiet neighborhood had been shaken recently by an ongoing feud between rival groups of youths who in recent weeks have vandalized each others' cars. The neighbor said she had noticed that more youths had been selling drugs openly in the neighborhood, particularly along 15th Street.

Yesterday, a stream of visitors, including Jerona's teachers and a pastor, came to the Stewart home, in the 700 block of Princeton Place NE.

"Everybody seemed to love her," Stewart said. "She liked to draw, she liked to dance. Sometimes kids are sassy and disrespectful, but she wasn't."

CAPTION: Jerona Stewart, 15, was a straight-A student about to graduate from middle school, her mother said.