Arlington should scrap its current format of three regular high schools and cut back its alternative schools program because of declining enrollments, according to a School Board-appointed study panel.

After a year of study, the 29-member Commission to Study Secondary Schools could not reach a consensus on a specific reorganization plan, but it did agree that the county should not continue to operate all three regular high schools much longer. The combined enrollment of nearly 4,000 students in grades 9 through 12 at the three schools--Wakefield, Washington-Lee and Yorktown--is expected to dwindle to the point where there won't be enough students to fill two high schools by the end of the decade.

In addition, the panel wants the county to shut down H-B Woodlawn Secondary School, which has a loosely structured, college-type format for grades 7 through 12, and to trim the seventh grade from Page Traditional School, which has a "back-to-basics" format for kindergarten through seventh grade.

Both are very popular "alternative" schools with highly individualized instruction and perennial waiting lists for admission.

The commission concluded, however, that the original purpose of the two programs has been accomplished and that other schools could meet the educational needs of Page and Woodlawn pupils.

"We were supposed to be dealing with declining enrollments, and one way to solve that at the high schools was to send the H-B [Woodlawn] students back to their [original] schools," said Woodlawn Principal Ray Anderson, a commission member who opposed closing the school.

School Board Chairman Claude M. Hilton said he doubts any changes would be implemented before fall 1983. The commission has targeted fall 1984 as a more likely date.

When the panel presents its findings to the School Board June 3, said commission chairman Donn Marston, they will give the board three options for consolidation:

* Continue to operate three high schools. Three commission members favored this approach.

* Close one high school. Twelve members agreed on this.

* Assign juniors and seniors to one high school and both freshmen and sophomores to the other two. Thirteen members favored this. One member did not agree with any of the proposals.

With the commission almost evenly split, Marston predicted that the School Board will face substantial pressure from groups lobbying for the different options.

In addition, Marston said, the commission is recommending that one of the county's four intermediate schools be closed if the board decides to retain three high schools, and that two intermediate schools be closed if either of the other two high school options is adopted.

Just which schools should be closed is a decision the commission is leaving to the School Board. But the commission is recommending that "redistricting to provide better racial and ethnic balance among the schools" be undertaken, regardless of the board's final decision.

Arlington is under a 1971 court-approved desegregation plan that resulted in the closing of the once-predominantly black Drew Elementary School as a regular neighborhood grade school; it is now one of the county's three "alternative" schools, along with H-B Woodlawn and Page. Drew's pupils were bused to various intermediate schools throughout the county and then entered the high school that the intermediate school normally "fed" into.

But since 1978, when the last major study of secondary schools was conducted, the number of black students in the county has declined by more than 14 percent, and the number of white students by almost 20 percent. The number of minority students other than blacks--particularly Asians and Hispanics--has increased by more than 58 percent.

As a result, the commission asked in an interim report to the School Board in February: "Does the busing now imposed on certain black students make sense for the future in light of the declining numbers of blacks and the growth of the other minorities?"

The question of cutting back the alternative school programs at H-B Woodlawn and Page--which the commission approved by a 17 to 12 vote--is likely to be as controversial as the consolidation question.

Page Traditional School, with its "back-to-basics" format, has self-contained classrooms and what some parents perceive as a greater emphasis on structure and discipline. County school officials, who have been asked to add an eighth grade there, maintain there are several schools similar to Page that just don't happen to enjoy the same public image.

At H-B Woodlawn, students take an active role in plotting their educational goals and in running the school. Its students, who technically still belong to their original "home" school but take nearly all their classes at Woodlawn, run the gamut from those who are unable to adapt to a regular, large high school to those who are extremely self-disciplined and self-motivated.

"The definition of Woodlawn has changed so tremendously since we opened" 11 years ago, said language teacher Mary Flynn. "We were the 'dropouts' school for a while . . . and now we're being called the 'gifted and talented' school, the 'over-achievers' school or the 'haven for whites.' But we have so many different types of students here."

Both Page, which has 370 students (including 50 in the seventh grade) and Woodlawn, with 370 students, are overwhelmingly white. Students at both also tend to score higher on tests than their "regular" school counterparts. As a result, there have been growing charges of elitism in the two programs.

Anderson said he gave the commission six different ideas to "deglamorize and take away some of the resentment" towards Woodlawn so it might continue to exist, such as relocating the program to other schools or creating a special "programs campus" that would mix it with other separately run education programs, such as adult and special education. But, he said, the commission "didn't really want to talk about them because the purpose of the program wasn't part of the commission's charge."

Page Principal Frank Miller said there has been little reaction to the commission's recommendation. But Anderson, who has been speaking at black churches recently in an effort to recruit more black students, said he has gotten angry feedback against the proposed closing.

"I've been trying to keep the anxiety level down here by not alarming people, but by trying to give them a realistic sense of what's going on," Anderson said, noting that the School Board may decide that an alternative high school program still would be necessary.

The strongest sentiment for closing H-B Woodlawn came from the Wakefield community, which felt "threatened" by a perceived drain of its students, Marston said. He said the community believed that the loss of Wakefield students to Woodlawn this year jeopardized the course offerings, particularly advanced-placement classes, at Wakefield.

Anderson maintains that the "threat" is a false perception since only three of Woodlawn's 77 students from Wakefield are in the top 20 percent of Wakefield's class. "We're a very imagined contributing factor to what Wakefield thinks is a problem," he said.