A dozen Northwood High School students gathered around a conference table last Friday afternoon and tried to bridge cultural gaps. With a shy and embarrassed formality, the eight Americans and foreign students from seven countries began introducing themselves.

"What was that?" one of the Americans asked the boy who had just said his name. "Wael," the boy repeated.

"Where are you from?"

"Jordan," he replied.

The other responded with a hushed and amazed, "Wow!"

Foreign students are not new to Northwood, but in the past most of them have been the sons and daughters of diplomats and other professionals, with educations at least equivalent, if not superior, to those of the Americans. This year 150 students who speak 14 languages but no English are bused each morning from all parts of the country for intensive English lessons, bilingual classes and regular academic courses at Northwood.

Some of these classes are offered at other schools, such as Montgomery Blair and Richard Montgomery high schools, where there are large numbers of Vietnamese and Hispanic students. But the Northwood experiment is the first to cluster a group of about six teachers and the students in one school.

The foreign students find comfort in their numbers but in some ways are segregated from the rest of the student body. The American students call them the ESOL kids. The acronym stands for the name of the county language program -- English for Speakers of Other Languages.

The foreign students have little opportunity to join clubs because they must board the buses promptly at the end of the day to go home to far reaches of the county. And when their English is better, whether that be after one semester or at the end of the year, they must return to schools closer to their homes to make room for new arrivals in the language program.

The leaders of the student body at Northwood see the Friday afternoon sessions as one step toward easing the segregation.

An awkward silence hung over the group at first, but Danny Kracov, the 17-year-old student government president who organized the meeting, was determined to keep the conversation going.

"Well, do you find our school any easier or harder than in your country?" he persisted.

Maria Ortiz of Bolivia, Young Chul Heo of Korea and Ngo Huong of Vietnam blushed under the interrogation and the American students laughed at themselves for their relentless questioning. By the end of 40 minutes the students were chatting quietly with one another, and the next time the halls filled with students, a few more friendly greetings were exchanged.

The students know that weekly meetings won't force the foreign and American students to mingle, particularly in the cafeteria where seating and the pecking order of popularity are closely aligned, but they see the sessions as an important start.

"I think we are mean to them -- not intentionally, but we do stick to our groups," said Annie Mills, a 17-year-old junior. "And so do they."

Paul Johnson, 17 and a senior, said he felt there should be a regular class modeled after their Friday meetings -- a human-relations class.

There are many lessons to be learned in the program's first year, and no one knows them better than Gloria Frank, the multilingual program coordinator at Northwood who applies equal portions of compassion and humor to her job.

"Now that young man there," she said, pointing to a Cuban student in the bilingual history class, "has been out of school for four years. In Cuba he was on his own a lot and ran his own life. Here, if you're three minutes late for a class, that's a serious infraction. So he's sent to the office all the time. He says, 'What's three minutes?' and when you consider what he's been through, you get to see his point."

Another time a Laotian boy was brought to her office after it was discovered he had been taking two lunch periods every day. His schedule read "Creative Foods" followed by lunch. The boy saw the word "foods" and figured he was supposed to go to the cafeteria.

He eventually joined the Creative Foods class and was a good participant, except when it was time to clean up. He then rolled down his sleeves, folded his arms across his chest and refused to have anything to do with it. For an Asian man to cook was stretching tolerance, but washing dishes went beyond the limits of his culture.

Frank marvels at the rapid adjustment the students make, frequently helping each other.

"I had one 15-year-old Vietnamese girl who hadn't spoken a word of English and was frightened to death. I took her down to a history class and there was a kid waving his arms in the back of the class. 'She was in my refugee camp!' he shouted. He was a great help, because he not only spoke the same language but had the same experience," said Frank.

Jan Wilson's ESOL students, most of whom arrived in the United States within the past year and know little or no English, can't wait to be called on in class. They call out the answers from all corners of the room.

"Mrs. Wilson is singing a beautiful song to the boys. What is the next noun after Mrs. Wilson?" she asks.

"Song! Song! Song!" come the shouts.

The verbosity in the classroom pleases Wilson. "You really have to win this kind of child over. Some were terrified and wouldn't say a word until they thought they could trust you."

"They're going to make good Americans because they want to do the right thing," she added.

"I wish more of my American kids took their school as seriously," said principal Bob Mullis, who lobbied to bring the program to Northwood. "That's one of the reasns I wanted it. The Americans can learn from them."

The students at Northwood are among more than 6,000 foreign students in the county, of who about 3,000 receive English instruction and 250 take one or two bilingual classes.

The immigrants come from increasingly diverse backgrounds. Vilma Montiel, a bilingual Spanish teacher, was startled to find a picture of one of her students in a recent book on Nicaragua. At the age of 15 he was a Sandinista guerrilla fighting the Somoza regime.

Betty Knight, the county's ESOL and bilingual program supervisor, often says she can chart the political crises of the world by the enrollment patterns of Montgomery County schools.

Refugees from El Salvador, fleeing a country rent by civil war, comprise the newest group to arrive in significant numbers. Last May, two Salvadorans registered for school in the county. In June, there were five, July brought 12 and August another 26.

Among them were the children of Maria O. Reyes, a Salvadoran who has lived in the United States for 12 years and last year was joined by her children from her first marriage, who had been living in Santa Ana.

Her oldest daughter, Anna Vasquez, is a senior at Northwood. She arrived in the United States last spring and attended Wheaton High School for two months. But because she spoke almost no English, she found the classes with American students too difficult. She is now at Northwood, taking two English language classes, a bilingual U.S. history class, typing, physical education and Independent Living.

She will finish her high school education in June, and by the, she said, she expects her English to be good enough to allow her to study to be a pilot.

For others, however, June will mean the end of their Northwood experience. Next year they will be back in their homes schools, attending regular classes.

The students, in an unexpected turn of events, say school officials, don't want to go.

Frank ran into fierce resistance from the 35 students she sent back to home schools at mid-year. The youths pleaded and wrote letters to the principal, the superintendent and the head of the continuum education department, to no avail.

"They hate to do it, but you can't keep protecting them. Survival skills are what we're trying to give them," she said.

"It's traumatic for them, but you can't keep opening the door and never closing it. The resources are limited," said Mullis.