The child was 3 1/2 years old when he was hit by a bullet fragment while playing outside his home in Cambodia. A few years later, he witnessed the execution of his father and the slow starvation deaths of four brothers and sisters.

Like many who lived in Cambodia under the notorious Pol Pot government in the late 1970s, he was kidnaped and forced to work in a children's labor camp, planting rice and clearing the shrub-covered land "from when they blew the whistle at 6 o'clock in the morning until dark," he explained through a translator in a recent interview.

With his wet, brown eyes cast on the ground while he was trying to speak about his past, the child said that he was once badly beaten for trying to escape. He said he remembers that he had only one black shirt and that he ate rice with water twice a day, but only if he worked hard enough.

Today the child, who asked that his name not be used, is about 15 years old and is enrolled at a junior high school in Montgomery County where he works diligently to learn the "to do" verb and to master his multiplication tables. Now he remembers, after one year of school in the United States, that his teacher gave him a book to read and homework to do and that "a good teacher said 'hi' " to him on his first day of school.

The number of students like him is increasing in the Washington area, children who have fled the war and brutality of their homelands and are struggling in their new surroundings to overcome psychological trauma and illiteracy.

In most schools, they must fit into regular classes the best they can. But in Montgomery County, 104 of these foreign students in junior high will be enrolled this year in a new program that provides counseling and separate courses in intensive basic reading, math, social studies and English. Tissed her on the cheek, was the first student to don one of the jackets.

"I have a job and I have to get back to work," she explained. "Yeah, I'm happy about this."

But Frederick said she didn't need gifts and certificates to encourage her to attend school. So far this year, her perfect attendance has earned her free tickets to last month's Jacksons Victory Tour concert and the musical "Cats." She also has received many caps and T-shirts and a calendar for her efforts.

But Frederick and the other 59 students honored yesterday are all too rare, said Marilyn Tyler Brown, assistant superintendent of the D.C. division of student services.

On an average day, 20 percent of the system's estimated 89,000 students are absent. That is a troubling statistic, local educators say, when one realizes there is a direct link between attendance, bahavior and academic performance.

Beginning this fall, District schools are using a $1 million federal grant to help improve the system's poor attendance rate by hiring attendance counselors and installing computer-assisted systems that can automatically call parents and inform them that their child has missed a day of school.

District schools Superintendent Floretta McKenzie has placed a high priority on achieving a 90 to 95 percent attendance rate, Brown said.

"This year," she said as her eyes followed the last of the Jackson jackets, "we plan to reach our target."