There was the usual chaos last Dec. 19 when the students of McKinley High School in Northeast Washington gathered in the gymnasium for the annual Christmas assembly. They talked loudly among themselves, paying little attention to the McKinley choir's gospel performance. But when Dwayne Hall stood at center court to read the names of the honor roll students, the crowd quieted enough so that his voice could be heard.

"Please come forward as I call your names," said Hall, who had been invited to the special ceremony as McKinley's top graduate from the previous year. "Valerie Allen. Lisa Anderson. Tracie Andrews. Monica Barnhill . . . . "

No one came forward. "Are these people here?" Hall asked. A few students snickered. He continued reading from the list. Still, no one stood up. School Principal Bettye W. Topps took the microphone. "I want those people whose names have been called to come forward," she said, almost barking a command. "Front and center, now!" Several students began coming down from the bleachers. When Hall finished reading the names, 53 in all, about 20 students stood at center court.

As the assembly ended, Topps glowered as she surveyed the 1,000 or so students in the gym, occasionally adjusting the maroon scarf on her gray dress. A minute went by. The crowd grew silent. Topps, a 43-year-old Alabama native whose childhood dream was to become a teacher, scolded them for being "the poorest audience I have ever been a part of" and said:

"There is something strange . . . when people who have obtained excellence are embarrassed to come forward. I don't understand why you would rather be mediocre than excellent. I don't understand how those of you who have worked to be excellent can let some of you manage to make people feel bad . . . . You should not be the exception. You should be the rule."

What Topps saw that day was a dramatic example of how academic values have been turned upside down at McKinley. Somehow, an environment has emerged that discourages excellence and encourages mediocrity, that inhibits creativity and fosters complacency. McKinley has its share of smart and energetic students, but they are not the strongest force in the school.

It is common to walk into a classroom and find that a majority of the students have come to class unprepared, neglecting to bring with them the most basic tools of learning -- textbook or pencil or paper or homework. Frequently, the teachers chastise them; often, the students return to class unprepared, as if nothing had been said. Teachers seem to accept that many students have a nonchalant attitude toward learning, turning their attention instead to those who show an interest in doing well.

To be smart at McKinley, to do well, is to be different. To be different is to stand out. And standing out, calling attention to oneself, is not cool. "They want to do well," Topps said of her honor roll students. "But they don't want to be identified as people who do well."

Being cool is being able to skate by, to pass with a minimum of effort. "Nobody cares if I'm smart," said 11th grader Irvin Kenny, an honor roll student whose friends call him "undercover smart" because he camouflages his academic talents. "I hang with people who are not smart. People see me in the hall a lot. I'm loud in class . . . . I make a lot of noise. But I still get my work done."

This is not the McKinley of the 1960s, when some of the best young students in the District competed for admission to the school's preengineering, science and music programs. Its graduates from that period include men and women, nearly all of them black, who went on to distinguish themselves as doctors, lawyers, nurses, research scientists, educators, corporate executives and government officials. To attend "Tech," as it was known in those days, was considered an opportunity, a first step to a bright future.

That legacy is hardly in evidence now. McKinley's curriculum still includes preengineering and science courses that are not available at most D.C. high schools, but the best students go elsewhere, to Wilson High School or Banneker High School (a special academic school created six years ago) or the Duke Ellington School of the Arts, bypassing the imposing Georgian brick building on the hill that overlooks Second and T streets NE.

Among the District's 14 high schools, McKinley is neither the best nor the worst; it falls squarely in the middle on test scores and on the percentage of graduates who go on to college. Like many other urban schools, its enrollment has declined dramatically; in 1967, it had 2,442 students, twice as many as it had when the new school year began last week.

And, according to several experts who have studied urban schools, it shares many of the characteristics -- and problems -- usually found in an urban high school. It is part of a school system in which the majority of students come from poorer families than most of those who attend public school in Washington's more affluent suburbs, the result of several decades of migration from cities to the suburbs.

Although a significant number of black and white families with higher incomes have remained in the District, many have chosen to send their children to private or parochial schools. About 15 percent of school-age D.C. children attended nonpublic schools last year, according to D.C. government statistics. Several years ago, the D.C. school system took steps to recapture those families, implementing special programs at the elementary school level and creating Banneker.

I spent nearly all of the 1986-87 school year at McKinley, attempting to answer some basic questions about today's urban high school: How do teachers motivate their students? How do the students cope with the pressures they face? Is the school helping the students to learn -- or standing in their way?

The answers came from learning about incidents such as this: One day last fall, teacher Beulah Smith told her first-period senior English class that she was disappointed because more than half of the 30 seniors had done poorly on a writing assignment. She decided to read aloud the best paper, bringing groans from the class. "I know you're going to read Kenny's first," one student said, a reference to Kenneth Jackson, whose work was regularly praised by Smith.

After class, Kenneth stopped by Smith's desk and asked her not to read his papers aloud again. She tried to dissuade him, but Kenneth insisted. For the remainder of the year, she tacked his best papers on her green-covered bulletin board near her desk, but she did not read them to the class.

In an interview later, Kenneth said it wasn't the teasing that bothered him, it was that he saw no reason for the teacher to read his work to his classmates. "It wasn't of interest to them," he said.Getting 'the Whole Picture'

On Friday morning, Oct. 10, my second full day at the school, Topps took me on a tour of the 59-year-old building, which was undergoing its first major renovation. She stepped around a dusty plastic sheet hanging from a ceiling in a first-floor corridor and complained: "You won't be seeing a typical school year."

As we made our way past several closed-off areas, including some marked "Asbestos Dust Hazard," Topps pointed out some problems: The auditorium, which was supposed to be finished soon after school opened, was nowhere near completion. The public address system still wasn't working. The main office was closed and its occupants, including Topps and her four assistant principals, were working out of temporary quarters on separate floors. Fifteen classrooms were unavailable and the heating system wasn't working properly.

Nonetheless, Topps said, she was pushing ahead with her goals for the year. She felt that the school was at a critical stage. The faculty, which had been badly splintered when she took over as principal in 1982, finally seemed to have some momentum. They even had a slogan for the year, a theme that seemed to sum up Topps' hopes: "Renewing the Legacy -- Listening to the Past, Working for the Future."

The tour was a mixture of grandeur and griminess. The school was designed to fit with the rest of monumental Washington: It has a Greek revival facade, including six 30-foot columns and a balcony with a spectacular view of downtown Washington. Inside the main entrance is a marble foyer, which opens onto corridors with terrazzo floors made of polished marble chips set in cement. There is a greenhouse and a dramatic oval skylight in the library, and most of the classrooms have hardwood floors.

But the greenhouse hasn't been used in years and is now filled with debris. The library's skylight is intact, but a 50-year-old mural featuring scenes from American history was removed and replaced with wallpaper during the summer renovation. In some classrooms, the window panes were so dirty -- or had been replaced with plywood or a brownish-looking opaque plastic -- that teachers showed films without drawing the shades.

On the second floor, Topps ran into music teacher Beatrice Gilkes. In the days when McKinley attracted top-notch music students, Gilkes had more than 40 students; with the decline in the school's enrollment and the scaling back of the music program, she now has 18. Inside her classroom are three pianos -- two baby grands and a concert grand -- that were once used freely by her students. She now keeps them locked unless a student asks to use them.

Gilkes has seen the school change dramatically since she joined the faculty in 1954, the same year that the U.S. Supreme Court issued its Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka ruling, ordering an end to the segregated school systems that existed in Washington and throughout the nation. Within a few years, as white families began leaving the neighborhood or sending their children to private school, the all-white school became nearly all black. She saw the introduction of the "track system" in 1956, which grouped students by academic ability, and the demise of that system in 1967 when a federal judge banned such groupings as discriminatory against poor blacks.

McKinley's students come primarily from a wide area of Northeast Washington that encompasses several poor and middle-class neighborhoods, from public housing on Montana Avenue and Edgewood Terrace, from well-appointed town houses in Fort Lincoln near the Maryland border, from shingled and brick homes in Woodridge and Brookland. After school, many students head off to work; more than half of last year's senior class had half-day schedules so they could work part time.

Several times during the tour, Topps stopped to handle a disciplinary problem. She corralled two boys who were in the hall without permission and ordered them to class. She caught two "outsiders" -- two boys who were not McKinley students -- peeking into a second-floor classroom.

Later, she played down the significance of the incidents, saying it was easy to make too much of disciplinary issues. It was more important, she said, to establish a certain decorum and make clear to students that you expect them to behave appropriately. When she first came to the school, she was so disgusted with student behavior at assemblies that she held practice sessions on the proper ways to sit, to applaud, to enter and leave.

The key to a good school, she said, is good teaching. The best teachers -- the ones who can motivate the least interested students -- are the ones who are knowledgeable, well-prepared and creative. "Doing the same thing, the same way, will not make it," she said.

At the same time, she said, a good school could be hurt by a bad image. In the spring of 1986, she said, McKinley was unfairly branded as a drug school after seven McKinley students were charged with selling drugs to a police officer posing as a student. (Another undercover officer posed as a student last year, too, I learned at the end of the year. No arrests, however, were made at any time during the year.) Topps blamed the media for the way the issue was covered.

The tour was over and we were back at her office. She said, almost coldly, that if I wanted to write about "bad" teachers and "bad" students, she could give me names and save me time. Was I willing to look at the total picture?

I told her that I wanted to learn all about the school, but I particularly wanted to find out what was happening inside the classroom. "Fine," she said. Then she reminded me again: "The whole picture." 'You Need to Learn It'

The heating system wasn't working again and Room 107, where Anne Harding's senior English class met, was chilly. Although it was Oct. 14, some students were bundled up in sweaters and coats.

Harding, a slender, dark-haired woman who has taught at McKinley for 20 years, was irritated. The school year was six weeks old and the class hadn't finished a refresher section on grammar. She couldn't seem to get anyone to do the work, even though the class was a requirement for graduation. "It might be elementary and boring," she told them, "but you need to learn it. You should have learned it in the fifth grade."

Leaning against her desk, in front of a "Renewing the Legacy" sign tacked above the blackboard, Harding asked the class for an example of a sentence with a subordinate clause. No one responded. "I'm waiting for the sentence," she said, tapping one of her black pumps on the hardwood floor. Unable to get anyone to volunteer, Harding had to call on someone before she could get an answer. Later she said, "Part of the reason you don't understand is your attention span is too short. You are waiting for the commercial."

She hoped that the literature part of the course would stimulate their interest. As a first step, she assigned them to write a brief paper about a "hero" -- anyone they admired. The paper was due Wednesday, Oct. 22.

But in class that day, only 25 of the course's 38 students were there and only eight said they had written a paper. Harding was annoyed. She turned to Katrice Barnes, who usually did her homework, and told her to read her paper aloud.

"Are you ready?" Harding asked.

Katrice pulled her paper out of her notebook. "Don't you all laugh," she said, turning to her classmates.

"Don't worry about the laughing," Harding said, picking up her pen and indicating that she planned to make a note in her grade book of anyone who teased Katrice. "I got that covered."

Katrice twisted around in her seat and started to read. Her hero, she said, was Sylvester Stallone. A couple of boys put their hands over their mouths to muffle their laughter; Harding looked at them in disgust.

No one said anything as Katrice described how she admired Stallone because he played tough and macho characters in his movies. Although it was not the classic definition of a hero, Harding praised Katrice, saying she had tried to identify certain heroic traits and had done the assignment as required.

After four other students read their papers -- their heroes were members of their families -- Harding closed her grade book and addressed the students who had not done the homework.

"I can't conduct my class if you don't do what you're supposed to do," she said. "You will need more than a high school education if you're going to succeed in life. You will need more than what I have and what your parents have . . . . I don't like my class unprepared. I want you to learn something in this class."

Constant Interruptions

On a wet and gloomy Thursday morning, Dec. 18, teacher David M. Messman peeked through the double doors of Room 224 and saw only nine of 30 students in his 9 a.m. first-year Spanish class. Attendance had been dropping as the Christmas holiday approached, but this was worse than usual. Messman had a quick explanation. "It's raining," he said.

Class began with a brief exercise: Messman wrote a paragraph in Spanish on the blackboard and led the students through a translation of it, writing the English version on the board as they went. At 9:15, 15 minutes into the 45-minute class, a boy walked in and strutted to a seat in the back, saying nothing to Messman about being late. Two minutes later, another latecomer arrived, without a tardy excuse or books.

Messman asked the class to open their books to a Christmas carol on Page 204. "I don't have my book," one girl called out. A boy who didn't bring his book moved to sit next to a boy who did. Finally, Messman asked how many students had their books. Four of the 11 raised their hands.

Messman shook his head, more resigned than angry. He handed out photocopies of the song, which he had handy because he was planning to use it in another class that did not have the same book. It was now 9:20. A few minutes later, a boy and a girl walked in empty-handed. He gave copies to them. At 9:27 a.m., another girl arrived, also without her book, and he gave her a copy.

The class was 27 minutes old, nearly two-thirds over, and the students had hardly done any work.

On another day, teacher Liliana G. Chiappinelli stood in front of a student's desk in her 9 a.m. second-year Spanish class, her head bowed as she read from an open book. The lights were off. One girl of the 21 students present seemed to be responding to her questions; the rest were doing something else.

One girl at a front-row desk was reading a paperback romance novel. Four girls were having a lively conversation, another was painting her fingernails, another was asleep, another was sipping a canned soda through a straw, and two girls near the windows were looking at separate photo albums. At 9:15, a boy arrived late, took his seat and immediately struck up a conversation with a girl next to him. A few minutes later, another boy got up, walked across the room to borrow three small photo albums from a girl, then returned to his seat.

Chiappinelli, head still bowed, continued to read. At one point she looked up and said, "I don't have many people answering questions. I only have one."

The scene in Chiappinelli's classroom that day was one of the more chaotic I saw during my year at McKinley. It was more typical to see teachers constantly interrupting their classes to deal with students who weren't paying attention.

One day during one of his French classes, teacher Vernon Williams was drilling his students on certain phrases when he heard a faint melody. He looked around. He shouted to a boy sitting in the rear, earphones on his head and Walkman on his belt. The boy did not hear him. Some students laughed. Williams shouted louder. The boy finally looked up. He took his earphones off.

"I'm really surprised at you," Williams said, confiscating the Walkman, which is prohibited in the school. At the end of class, he returned the Walkman with a warning: "I don't want to see that in McKinley any more." Earning Extra Credit

On the last morning before the winter break just before Christmas, the halls and classrooms at McKinley were like a ghost town. Only 50 of the school's estimated 1,200 students were in school. About 500 were at the Cinema Theatre in Northwest Washington, watching the Eddie Murphy movie, "Golden Child," as part of a school fund-raiser. The whereabouts of the rest was unknown.

Movie fund-raisers were popular. The students liked them because they were a break from the classroom and because some teachers gave extra credit to those who went. The teachers liked them because they could usually choose a movie that raised important social issues, which could then be discussed in class.

But "Golden Child" was primarily a fund-raiser, not an educational tool. Tickets cost $4, split between the theater and the school. Most teachers didn't actively promote the fund-raiser, which was sponsored by the social studies department. In some classes, it was just written in a corner of the blackboard.

Some teachers were bothered by this link between fund-raisers and grades. Still, it seemed harmless enough; during the course of a school year, extra credit for going to a movie wasn't going to change anyone's grade. But then came the incident in which Topps asked students to help the PTA pay off a $500 debt.

It began when the PTA held a Friday night dance in the gym and fewer than 100 students came. It was the same night that McKinley's top-rated basketball team played its arch-rival Dunbar at Dunbar's gym. A victory might have turned the dance into a celebration. But McKinley lost and no one felt like dancing. The PTA found itself with a band costing $1,000 and a lot of unsold $8 tickets.

At school the following Monday, Jan. 12, Topps told the faculty that "we've got to find a way" to pay off the debt. She held a round of meetings with students. The seniors, who offered to donate money, suggested that students get extra credit -- just as some got for going to movies. Topps liked the idea.

She came up with the following plan: For a $1 donation, students would receive a "ticket" that could be exchanged for extra credit in a class of the student's choice. Limit: One ticket to a student.

The next day in Anne Harding's senior English class, students seemed even less prepared than usual. Only four of the 21 seniors present handed in a two-page homework assignment. Harding stapled the papers and said: "Nobody can make an 'A' if you don't pass your work in today."

At one point, a boy held a ticket aloft and said, "Mrs. Harding, I got a ticket."

She glared at him. "That doesn't mean anything to me," she said.

A few days later, an 11th grader came to Topps' office to complain that his algebra teacher, Juliana Parker, wasn't accepting the tickets.

Topps said she could not force a teacher to accept the ticket. "Isn't there another class in which you can use it?" she asked.

"I need it in her class," the boy insisted.

Topps said there was nothing she could do. Disappointed, he said he would use it in another class.

Other teachers did accept the tickets, however, and sales were brisk. Within two days of Topps' announcement, 358 had been sold. The final count was short of the $500 needed; the PTA sold T-shirts at a basketball game to make up the difference.

The episode created some bad feeling among faculty members, some of whom confronted Topps and accused her of "selling grades." Others, however, said they saw the plan as a way to promote citizenship and participation.

Topps said that some teachers told her that their consciences wouldn't allow them to accept the tickets. Topps said she told them: "That's fine." Preparing for the Test

In late spring, Topps and the faculty turned their full attention to preparing ninth and 11th graders for the national standardized tests, the measuring rod that many parents use to judge the city's schools. One of Topps' primary goals was improving test scores; it was also a primary goal of the school system itself.

Topps directed her math, science and English teachers to spend part of their class time on Tuesdays and Thursdays getting the students ready. On Tuesday, April 14, English teacher Beulah Smith was having trouble with her 11th graders.

The students were using copies of old tests to do several reading comprehension exercises. Irvin Kenny, the honor roll student who says he intentionally tries not to act smart, wasn't paying attention. He whispered in the ear of a boy who was seated in front of him. He blew big bubbles from his gum. He made no effort to do the exercises.

Other students weren't paying attention as well. Finally, Smith had had enough.

"Instead of paying attention, you are doing other things," Smith said, angrily. "This is typical of what happens at McKinley. Some of you are looking around in space. The test is the 5th, 6th and 7th of May. We have not taken this test very seriously."

There was silence.

"You hurt my feelings," Irvin said, feigning a sad look.

"I'm sorry but that is the way it is," Smith snapped.

"You make me feel low," he said, placing his head on his desk.

Smith went on to another exercise. More students were paying attention now.

A few minutes later, Irvin lifted his head. He turned to several others and began talking. Smith shot him an angry glance. Irvin went right on talking.

NEXT: Topps' campaign

Thursday, Oct. 16, 1986

Teacher Margaret Allen had a question for the seniors in her 8 a.m. job skills class, a special course designed to teach students how to find and hold jobs.

"What should you do if you are fired?" Allen asked the six students in attendance.

"Start looking for another job," one girl answered.

Allen pointed to LaJuanda Hill, who was sitting at a desk near the front of the room. "What should you do?" she asked.

"Go to your mother," replied LaJuanda, fingering the gold block nameplate, ARCHIE, hanging from her herringbone necklace.

Allen smiled. "Suppose your mother isn't around."

"Go to your father," LaJuanda said quickly.

"Suppose your father isn't around," Allen said.

"Go to your uncle or other relatives," LaJuanda said sharply.

"No," Allen said. "I'm trying to get you away from that . . . attitude."

The students seemed perplexed. Finally, Lynda Faulk asked: "What's the answer, Mrs. Allen?"

Allen paused, looking at each student. "Well, first of all," she said, "I think you should try to evaluate why you were fired." ABOUT THE SERIES

Washington Post reporter Athelia Knight spent nearly all of the 1986-87 school year on assignment at McKinley High School, where school officials allowed her to sit in on classes, attend faculty meetings and interview students and teachers about the problems confronting today's urban high school. McKinley was selected because it is an average D.C. high school, as measured by its scores on standardized tests and by the percentage of its graduates who go on to college.