Dawn Rolen stood in line at the entrance of the auditorium in her starched white dress, sporting a red carnation. She said she was nervous and excited about her future.

"It's just the feeling of making it through all these years," said Rolen, a Northeast Washington resident who would like to attend college, but not until she saves money from a job with a local accounting firm.

Rolen was one of 101 high school seniors who graduated yesterday from the School Without Walls, an alternative D.C. public high school where students can combine traditional academic courses with work experience in qualifying for their diplomas.

Yesterday's commencement exercise was the first of 20 D.C. public school graduations to be held during the week.

The ceremonies were held inside the Dunbar High School auditorium because the School Without Walls, at 1619 M St. NW, was too small to hold the event.

D.C. Mayor Marion Barry, speaker for the graduation, told the students, "When I was younger, I didn't know what commencement meant.

"I thought it meant the end of something, the end of 12 years of education because it came at the end of that," he said.

"But it means the beginning," Barry said. "It has not always been easy for black people to get an education in this country, and I hope you will not take your education lightly."

Students attend the School Without Walls voluntarily. They are accepted based on their grades and ability to benefit from a curriculum that stresses self-discipline and independent study.

"Our only competitor [among city public high schools] is Wilson High in Northwest Washington and 80 percent of our students go on to college," said Antoinette Corprew, the principal. Corprew, and five students select students from throughout the city to attend the school. Most of the students are black and students come from verying income levels and backgrounds.

"After going to Wilson High for 2 1/2 years I was bored stiff of the standardized education," said Todd Fredell, his long red hair tied with a multicolored headband.

"I just reached the point where I wasn't learning anything any more," he said, moments before he walked down the aisle to the stage in a borrowed black suit and only black socks. Fredell, who said he does not own black shoes, wore white tennis shoes to the school and then took them off.

Saul McCormick, Northwest Washington resident, said he chose the School Without Walls because of its program that allows students to take courses at local universities and with accredited professionals. McCormick, a music major, took music classes at the University of the District of Columbia and art courses at the Corcoran School of Art this year.

"This school, the way it's set up, gives you a good incentive to go and learn on your own," McCormick said. "It gives you the chance to be and do what you want."

Regina Pettifor, a Southeast Washington resident who plans to major in psychology at Virginia State College, said most of her classes were college preparatory courses taken at the school on M Street NW.

"But I enjoyed taking English classes in the living room of the home that belonged to Alice Roosevelt Longworth," Pettifor said.

Corprew, principal of the school said the school's concept is to make learning relevant by combining textbook theory with real life situations. A total of 276 students are enroled in the school.

In the past, students have taken English and philosophy courses in Alice Roosevelt Longworth's living room and art classes at the Corcoran. They have worked for D.C. City Council members and Del. Walter Fauntroy, and have learned chemistry and biology working in laboratories side by side with professionals at Walter Reed Army Hospital, the National Instituties of Health and the Food and Drug Administration.

Sandra Payne, 18, a Northeast Washington resident and School Without Walls senior, hopes to become a physician. Under the school's program, she worked part-time with the Washington Heart Association last year, and this year, with a cardiac technician at Providence Hospital.

"Instead of sitting down in a classroom all day, I've had a chance to get out and work, to see what's its really like in the real world," said Payne, who has been accepted to attend Frostburg State College in Maryland, where she will take pre-med courses. CAPTION: Picture, REGINA PETTIFOR . . . going to Virginia State