Alberta Johnson was the kind of student "you couldn't pay to come to school," according to the attendance officer at her school.

A seventh grader at Taft Junior High in Northeast Washington, Alberta was failing in school because of her seven straight weeks of absences. Yet her mother and her attendance officer seemed incapable of getting her to attend class.

Then Taft's attendance officer, Ethel Lee, had an idea to entice Alberta, 12, and hundreds of other public school students who are chronic truants to return to classes.In nine junior high schools, the students with the worst truancy records were promised that if their attendance improved in the last four months of school they would get to meet and have lunch with D.C. Mayor Marion Barry.

The plan apparently worked. Yesterday more than 100 junior high school youths were treated to a pool-side lunch at the International Inn and had a chance to chat and shake hands with the mayor. Alberta, who has had perfect attendance for the past seven weeks was given the task of introducing Barry to the gathering.

It was hard to determine with many of the students if the real incentive for returning to school was the lunch with the mayor -- or simply getting caught by their attendance officers and parents. The parents also were notified about the mayor's luncheon and asked to keep special tabs on their children.

Yet, many of the youngsters sounded like born-again students when they talked about the truancy habit they say they have shed.

"If you miss a day of school, even if it's just a day, you'll still be behind," said Tonya Gilliam, 15, an eighth grader at Hamilton Junior High in Northeast.

"I have a goal now in life. I want to be not just somebody, but somebody important," said Linda Horton a ninth grader at Hamilton.

Most students said they skipped school because they were bored there, did not like the teachers, the other students -- or they simply found it more fun to hang around stores and play pinball, visit with friends in other schools, or stay home and watch television.

James Butler, who had more than 30 absences this year, said he simply wanted to get more sleep.

When the first rays of daylight would creep into Butler's bedroom window, he would simply turn over in bed and continue to sleep instead of getting up to catch a 6:30 a.m. crosstown bus to school. Although he lives in Anacostia, his mother thought it better for him to be away from his neighborhood friends during the day, so she enrolled him in Hamilton, in Northeast.

Butler said he knew he had until at least 7:30 a.m. to sleep when his mother would get home from her night job. So on days when he awoke too late for the bus, "I'd just put on my clothes and go out like I was going to school, but I never did," he explained.

Once his mother was informed of the problem -- and Lee's new program to encourage attendance -- she began calling her son at 6 a.m. from work to make sure he was up.

Lee's program will continue next year in the junior high schools. Truancy is a special problem there, attendance officers say, since some students have difficulty adjusting to the added freedom and responsibility they have when they pass from the elementary to junior high level.

Attendance is poorest in the high schools, according to the school system's own statistics. There is only a 78.7 percent rate of attendance in the high schools and 83.3 percent in the junior highs.

Barry, described by Alberta Johnsonin her introduction as a man who picked cotton as a child, attended public school -- regularly -- and was an Eagle Scout. He told the one-time truants that he wants them to be "excellent . . . not just good but great."

Lee , who worked in Barry's mayoral campaign, said she thought a lunch with the mayor would be an incentive for the youngsters since Barry is "someone they can identify with."

She said next year the students will be required to not just improve their attendance, but also their academic performance, in order to have lunch with the mayor.