Nathaniel Thomas was a freshly minted teacher, eager and excited, when he stood at the front of a seventh-grade classroom in a struggling, largely African American school in Prince George's County.

Thomas himself is black. He grew up in the county.

What he thought was, if anyone could reach these kids, he could.

What he got was culture shock.

"Their reality was not my reality," he said. "I never had the experience of being hungry. I'd never lost a loved one so close to me, and a lot of my students had lost mothers, grandparents, friends."

Thomas could try to empathize. But he didn't get it. He felt overwhelmed by the sheer size of the class at Drew-Freeman Middle School in Suitland -- 38 students: two white, five Latino and the rest African American. Most days felt out of control; the kids set off stink bombs in the hall, and security never seemed to come when he called. Many students, even teachers, didn't show up for class some days.

After four months, Thomas -- the son and grandson of principals, who had always wanted to teach -- was ready to quit.

His solid, middle-class upbringing in Oxon Hill, his International Baccalaureate program at Suitland High, his political science degree from Hampton University -- none of it had prepared him to negotiate life as a teacher in what was essentially an urban public school.

That is why, in part, on a bright summer day last week, Thomas, now 23 with three years' teaching experience, was in a basement classroom at the University of Maryland with 43 other inner-city teachers from across the country, taking part in the first Summer Institute for Urban Educators, a program sponsored by a D.C. advocacy group.

The idea is that until such teachers "get" their students -- their distinct cultures, their languages, their home lives, their perceptions of the world and their place in it -- urban teachers will never effectively reach these students, whom much of national education reform is aimed at helping.

It's called "cultural competence" in edu-speak.

And, as one presentation last week made clear, some teachers clearly don't understand how to connect. In 1994, one well-meaning teacher in an inner-city Chicago school handed out a math test with a new take on the story problem: "Johnny has an AK-47 with a 40-round clip. If he misses six out of 10 shots and shoots 13 times at each drive-by shooting, how many drive-by shootings can he attend before he has to reload?"

Some experts have dismissed the notion of cultural competence as touchy-feely multiculturalism. Ishmail Conway, a former professor at the University of Virginia who is working with the summer institute, put it this way: "It doesn't change 1+1=2. It doesn't change H2O being water. It just possibly changes how you get that message across on a day-to-day basis," he said. "Show me the evidence that we don't need this. There's more evidence that says we need to understand each other better. Because something's not working."

The statistics, from the federal government and advocacy groups, speak for themselves.

* African American and Latino students are among the fastest-growing populations in public schools and on average, they score lower on standardized tests than their white and Asian counterparts.

* African Americans represent 16 percent of the elementary and secondary school populations, yet they make up 21 percent of those in special education -- labeled as learning disabled, mentally retarded or emotionally disturbed -- a statistic that has not changed significantly since it was first brought to light in the 1970s.

* Nearly half of all students in urban public schools do not graduate from high school. Teacher turnover in such schools is high.

Some educators attribute these bleak statistics in part to low teacher expectations. That subtle, often unconscious phenomenon will never change, Conway said, without teachers looking honestly within themselves and out at the diverse humanity before them in the classroom. Minority students make up nearly 40 percent of the school population, while the majority of public school teachers are white women, according to the group running the course.

Against such a weighty backdrop, Nathaniel Thomas agonized with the other teachers last week over whether he had handled students' use of an epithet correctly or whether he had made too much of it.

Black students in his class had taken to calling one of the few white students in the room "white boy." The boy didn't protest. "Naw, they're my friends," he explained to the teacher. "We're just playing around." All the students told Thomas he was overreacting.

"What if he called them a name back? What if someone else hears it, who isn't a friend, and takes offense?" he wondered. "There would be trouble." Thomas finally decided that he couldn't control what the boys did outside the classroom but asked them not to use the epithet in class.

A key lesson for Thomas came from a student who kept talking out in class, yelling as Thomas tried to lecture. Thomas tried ignoring him. He tried giving him leadership responsibilities. Then Thomas started to listen.

He discovered that the young student had just lost his father. Perhaps what he needed was help in mourning. Perhaps what he needed was attention.

Thomas moved the student's desk next to his. He made it a special place. The talking stopped. The student began getting A's in class. Thomas felt he was on to something.

In a week of seminars, presentations and heartfelt discussions, perhaps the secret to "cultural competence" was really quite simple: to get to know the students and where they come from, and to care.

"Many teachers, especially at the higher levels, are scared of their students," said Jacob Mann, who helps run Community Teachers Institute, the advocacy group that sponsored the seminar. "All they know about their students' culture is what they see on TV, and they're intimidated."

In the end, Thomas, who now teaches government at Forestville Military Academy, a public school in Prince George's, doesn't have to like the rap music his students listen to, but he does need to know about it. And he does need to make sure that the way his classroom looks and the materials that he chooses include people and stories that his students can relate to.

And if he can do it -- if he can become "culturally competent" by reaching across what for him was a class divide, he said, anybody can.

"As long as you listen," Thomas said, "you can build relationships, no matter what your background is."

Nathaniel Thomas, right, a Prince George's County teacher, discusses a lecture with Rushern L. Baker III, executive director of the D.C.-based Community Teachers Institute.Jason Irizarry instructs teachers at the Summer Institute for Urban Educators at the University of Maryland in "cultural competence."