In March, 1979, Paige Davis was supporting three children on $450 in monthly unemployment benefits. Six months later, she was a word processor at the local Booker T. Washington Foundation, thanks to a job training program organized by the Washington Urban League, the D.C. Private Industry Council and IBM Corp.

The Word Processing Center, whose instruction is available only to individuals with incomes under $4,000, opened in 1978 with the help of $280,000 in Comprehensive Employment and Training Act funds and $50,000 from both Time Inc. and the Mobil Corp. IBM donated the services of four instructors and one manager.

Since 1978, the center has accepted a total of 290 students, with 200 eventually completing the six-month session. IBM corporate liaison Matt Robinson said most of those who dropped out left because of economic constraints. "Most needed to work," he said, "and others found jobs during the program."

Competition for the program is keen, director Alonza Evans said, particularly in light of the current employment situation. He has received 171 telephone inquiries since May for the 27 spots in the session beginning in December.

Evans and Robinson agree that placement is one indicator of a training program's success.

Evans said almost all of the center's first graduates were placed in jobs within 30 days of graduation. Last year, he said, the figure was closer to 80 percent. This year "will be the first time we have not had over half of the class placed on graduation night," Evans said.

Evans said the center is attempting to become self-sufficient by gradually hiring its own staff. It currently employs 10 people in addition to two IBM employes. "As we've hired people, the IBM executives have gone back to the corporation," he said.

The center's staff also solicits comments from employers on alumni job performance in an attempt to improve the curriculum and make it more relevant to office life.

"We upgrade on the basis of what the market requests," Robinson said.

Although Paige Davis was apprehensive when she entered the program, she adopted a more positive attitude. She said she "had heard about the social programs . . . that they didn't work.

"I was so determined that I was going to get everything out of it that I could," Davis said. "I believe I'm not unlike a lot of other people . . . the opportunity needs to be there."

The hurdles graduates face, however, are social as well as skill-related.

"They are coming out of a far different environment," Robinson said, "possibly a ghetto environment . . . and they walk into a law office on Connecticut Avenue.

"This is the first time in their life they've ever had a chance for a win."