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Armed with only a college degree and her youthful idealism, Sylvia Barrett arrives at Calvin Coolidge High School to begin her career as an English teacher. The school is located in a New York City slum area where the overcrowded classes are filled with unruly and often hostile teenagers from underprivileged families. Further, Sylvia must contend with seemingly endless paperwork and fellow teachers whose experience has made them either indifferent or cynical. Sylvia initially retains her optimism; but as the school year progresses, she finds herself unable to cope with the needs of her students. The delinquent but highly intelligent Joe Ferone misinterprets her interest in him and tries to seduce her; love-sick Alice Blake writes a love letter to one of the male teachers, Paul Barringer, and then attempts suicide when he callously corrects the grammar in her letter; and Ed Williams, an embittered black youth, drops out of school because he feels that no amount of education will enable him to overcome white prejudice. Toward the end of the school year, Sylvia believes that she is a failure and submits her resignation. However, during a mock trial in her classroom, Jose Rodriguez, a previously shy and reticent Puerto Rican boy, suddenly assumes the authority and confidence of a court judge and handles himself with new self-assurance. Realizing that despite all the frustration and heartbreak she has reached at least one of her students, Sylvia decides to remain at Coolidge High.