Kristin Knauth, a senior at the School Without Walls, is one of six Washington public school students who are semifinalists in the National Merit Scholarship competition.

She is the only student in the city schools to earn the honor who did not attend Wilson High School at Nebraska Avenue and Chesapeake Street N.W. She is one if only two Washington public school students, who did not go to Wilson, who have become semifinals since 1970.

Knauth, 17, would have attended Wilson - it is her neighborhood school - but she felt her neighborhood junior high, Deal, "was total chaos and Wilson would probably be more of the same."

"I went to Deal when education in the public schools was at a low point," she said. "The school system was disintegrating. Teachers spent their time handling discipline problems.

"If I had the choice then I would have gone to private school," Knauth said. "I had no option - my parents couldn't afford it."

Knauth's alternative was to attend the School Without Walls, at 1619 M St. NW, which was born out of the "alternative school" movement of the late 1960s and early 70s.

That school also produced a National Merit Scholarship semifinalist last year but that student went to the School Without Walls after attending Wilson for three years.

In its six-year history, the school has encouraged students to use the city's resources, its museums, businesses and government experts, while using the school as a home-base, according to Antoinette Corprew, the school's principal. The school also offers basic courses in academic skills.

Knauth said she wasted her first at the School Without Walls as she adjusted to its format. Since then, she said, she has been learning some things but not as much as she could.

"It's really quite easy to get by at the school" she said. "The program is geared to the majority of students and the standards are below what I have the potential for. I need to become more motivated to get more challenges. Right now I just take the courses offered at the school, really."

A part-time ice cream scooper at an ice cream parlor, Knauth said she doesn't think much of being a National Merit Scholarship semifinalist.

"It means I'm good at taking tests," she said. "And that's all."

"I have the advantage of a good background for educational success." said the A-average student. "Both my parents did graduate work at Stanford.

While traveling through California this summer, however, Knauth said people repeatedly told her: "You go to public school in the District of Columbia? How can your parents let you do that?"

Knauth, a world-traveler wo spent her first nine years in India. Somalia and Pakistan while her father was on a Fulbright Fellowship and in the Peace Corps, plans to take a year off from school after she graduates to travel before going to college.

"I don't want to go to a diploma factory so that means I'll probably go to a small private college," she said, "but they can be expensive so I anticipate working."

Knauth doesn't have a career goal: "I'm really an idealist," she said. "I'd like to be a perfect heart surgeon, an artist or a politician who would create world peace. I can't limit myself to anything at this time."