Le Thu Pham was 16 when she and her older brother tried to flee Vietnam. "I took a small boat to get in the big boat. He took a second one. Then they had too many people . . . he got lost."

Pham traveled alone to the United States. After five years of schooling, her education had stopped abruptly with the fall of Saigon in 1975. She knew no English.

By the early 1980s when Pham, now 19, relocated to Northern Virginia, Arlington teachers were becoming familiar with such stories -- and increasingly troubled about how they might end. During the 1983-84 school year, nearly 30 percent of the secondary students in high-intensity language classes were three years or more behind in native-language schooling, and that percentage was climbing.

Many of the older students lagged so far behind that they would likely turn 20, the maximum age for free public schooling, before they could finish graduation requirements.

"A couple of times, I'd have a student who was making real progress -- I'd say, 'Wow, this student is catching on' -- and then . . . he'd be gone. He'd have reached his 20th birthday," said Kathy Panfil, project specialist for Arlington's English-as-a-second-language curriculum.

The dropout rate for such students climbed as high as 35 percent, according to a 1983 study. Some left, teachers said, because they couldn't manage schoolwork and the full-time jobs they needed to support themselves. Some struggled to learn, uncomfortable in classes with students four or five years younger. For others, a high school diploma seemed an irrelevant and impossible goal.

"You'd have boys with no beards yet sitting next to someone who spent two years fighting in the Cambodian army," said Panfil. "Some had worked an eight-hour shift at work starting at 2 p.m., then had to get up for school at 7:30. It was so rough on them."

In 1982, school officials received $94,470 in federal funds and launched a program that coordinator Nancy Derr said was aimed in part "to catch those kids."

The money paid for High Intensity Language Training classes at Arlington's three alternative schools. At H-B Woodlawn Secondary School at 4100 Vacation Ln., the program now serves about 40 students such as Le Thu Pham -- students who are older, have erratic histories of prior schooling and know little or no English.

The purpose is to stem the dropout rate of such students with a flexible schedule, individual attention and realistic goals -- not a diploma, but a job. When the students turn 20, they may stay in the program one more year if they pay adult education tuition of about $100 a quarter.

"We try to keep them in school as long as we can," Derr said.

Fairfax County started a similar program in 1984, and 70 students up to the age of 20 now participate in the blended vocational and academic curriculum. Officials in both school districts say the need for such programs is increasing as more refugees with little schooling move to the Washington region.

In Arlington, 68 percent of secondary students now in high-intensity language classes are at least one year behind in previous schooling, compared with 39 percent in 1983-84.

"The political and economic realities . . . and the difficulties and family stresses that they encounter as they adjust to life here has strained the capacity of the schools to provide effective instruction, counseling and parental outreach for this population," an advisory committee on English-as-a-second-language instruction concluded in a recent report to the Arlington School Board.

One recent morning, Pham stood in a classroom at H-B Woodlawn, telling her story in shy, staccato English, occasionally glancing toward Derr for a word that had fled her memory.

When she is not in class learning noun clauses and civics, Pham takes typing and computer courses at the Arlington Career Center, the school system's center for vocational and adult education. The computers are "a little too difficult," she said, but the typing is easier. "Maybe, in the future, I might work in an office."

A 1983 study tracked the progress of 40 limited-English-proficient students who entered the Arlington school system as ninth graders in the 1978-79 school year. Four years later, 10 had graduated, 10 were still in school, six had moved from the county and 14 had dropped out. In the 1984-85 school year, High Intensity Language Training classes at H-B Woodlawn served 61 students, 14 of whom arrived with less than seven years of prior schooling. Five withdrew during the year.

"The creation of the H-B Woodlawn HILT program has caused the dropout rate to decrease," Arlington educators concluded in a 1985 evaluation of the program. When the three-year federal grant ran out, the school system picked up the tab for two teachers and supplies.

Derr measures her classes' success in more elusive terms.

"These kids are very much alone sometimes," she said. "I spend hours on the phone talking to prospective employers . . . there's a lot of mothering going on here.

"I do get discouraged sometimes. They're slow; they're so slow. They have lots of problems, lots of things that are dragging them away" from school matters. "You see this breakdown, and it frustrates you. Sometimes I say to them, 'You don't have to be here; no one is forcing you to come here.' The fact that they do come is great."

True to H-B Woodlawn's code of individualized learning, the High Intensity Language Training curriculum makes room for the sometimes disorderly lives of its students.

Classes start at 9:30 a.m., not 7:30 as in the three regular high schools. Students often call Derr at night, seeking advice about doctor's appointments and job plans as often as they ask about the homework.

"If a kid writes an excuse for tardiness to me, and the reason is driving his mother to the welfare office, I excuse him," she said.

Flexibility is crucial in such a program, geared toward students whose educations and lives have been disrupted by war or the need to work.

"At the elementary level, we can really have these limited English proficient children catch up . . . but for those over 16, there are just no curricula in our traditional high school that can meet the needs. So we've had to think about something creative," said Esther Eisenhower, coordinator of Fairfax County's English-as-a-second-language curriculum.

The programs stress practical learning. "Instead of teaching the vocabulary of American history," said Panfil, "we teach English using the vocabulary of the work place." Instruction becomes a hectic blend of English grammar and vocabulary lessons, "survival skills," and explanations of American culture.

On the bulletin board in Kathy Sypula's classroom for beginning students, blue strands of yarn connect students' names to countries all over the map -- Peru, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Thailand, Vietnam.

Students who speak the same languages cluster together, the ones who understand a little more translating in whispers for those who have just started to learn. "I'm from . . . " they repeat after Sypula in a chorus of accented English. "I come from . . . . "

Teaching the older students involves vaulting barriers of fear as well as language, Derr said.

"Before I come to study here, I'm afraid to speak," said Bunthoeun Bou, 18, who attended school for four years in his native Cambodia and for nine months in a Philippine refugee camp before arriving in the United States last April. "Sometimes people understand what I'm saying; sometimes they don't. I'm still afraid to talk too much."

For some, the classroom setting is unnerving. One student from Eritrea said, "I stand in front of 1,000 soldiers with a gun and don't get nervous, but when the teacher stands behind me, I can't do anything."

For these students, Derr stresses talking in class, even if the result is disorder. "I encourage the kids to talk as much as possible, even in unison. That's why I let them yell out so many of the answers . . . they need to feel unafraid to talk."

Teaching older, educationally deprived students, the teachers said, also means tempering hopeful expectations with a dose of realism.

"The goal is not high school graduation for many of these students. When we let the students out of the program, our hope is that they've got a job," Panfil said.

"I consider our program being extremely successful when a kid gets into Northern Virginia Community College . . . that's the real place, that's what most of them work for," said Derr.

Dung Nguyen, 20, is striving to fulfill that goal.

He came to the United States three years ago with his brothers -- "we escaped by boat together" -- and now lives alone in Arlington. His parents are still in Vietnam. After morning classes at H-B Woodlawn, he works as a hotel banquet cook from 1:30 to 9:30 p.m. Then he does his homework. Next year, he said, he hopes to take engineering courses at Northern Virginia Community College.

The hotel work, at nearly $7.50 an hour, "is a pretty good job," Nguyen said. "I can get good experience. But this is just a job for living right now, not for my future."