Ibrahim Abdalla is airborne, kicking at his opponent's head so swiftly that there is no time to yell or block the point.

Pandemonium breaks out in the stands at the Washington Convention Center, where Abdalla's young karate students have gathered to cheer him on in a national martial arts tournament.

"Ab-dal-la! Ab-dal-la!" they chant. "Ib-by! Ib-by!"

When he is not competing, Abdalla usually can be found in a nondescript basement studio in Gaithersburg teaching the physical skills -- and the way of life -- of karate to his mostly youthful students. The lessons he imparts go far beyond the art of karate: He emphasizes good grades, discipline and respect for others, qualities that are not always stressed at martial arts studios where force and cunning are the central curriculum.

Washington has always been a big karate town, ever since martial arts entrepreneur Jhoon Rhee opened his first studio here in the 1960s. In more recent years, karate has moved out to the suburbs with a vengence, lately inspired by two "Karate Kid" movies, which seemed to have reached out and tapped the hearts of a generation of teen-aged boys -- and girls.

" 'The Karate Kid' movies have tripled our enrollment," said Joe Drabkin, 25, owner of the USA Karate school where Abdalla teaches. "It's every kid's fantasy."

Ten years ago, there were about 30 martial arts schools in the Washington area; now there are more than 100. Several dozen schools advertise that the confidence gained through karate lessons will help improve grades. The cost of karate lessons can be $35 to $65 or more a month.

As karate has grown in popularity in the Washington area, instructors such as Abdalla have become for many youths "the new suburban heroes," said a father of young boys who study in Bethesda: "They are teaching the sons and daughters of the affluent physical self-confidence . . . self-defense and self-respect."

Abdalla's school gives lessons in kicking and sparring, but it also demands that young students keep their grades up, obey their parents and teachers and keep their rooms clean. Instructors will call home to check up on them. In schools that take time for the spiritual side of karate, the gospel is that clean living, diligent study and the ability to concentrate help give youngsters power over their destinies.

Said Jeff Smith, the former world champion karate fighter who is director of the Jhoon Rhee Institutes: "We try to instill knowledge in the mind, honesty in the heart and strength in the body . . . . We're constantly talking about improving grades in class."

"Not all the schools stress the academics, because they're afraid they will lose the business," he said. "Our philosophy is that if we have to lose a few to save a few, fine . . . . "

Drabkin, a former student and employe of Smith and Rhee, requires that school-age students bring in their report cards for inspection. They are told that they will not be allowed to learn moves that allow them to "graduate" to higher belt rankings if they do not maintain B averages in their academic studies.

The progression of colored belt rankings leading up to black belt, introduced by Rhee, is seen by some as purely a marketing tool to keep students coming back for more. But parents say their children are buying the concept of respect, study and hard work.

Bethesda resident Hedley Burrell observes that his sons Jason and Adam, students of Chuck Bittle at the USA Karate school in Bethesda, are "very anxious that their grades not drop. They take that very seriously. They take the values that {Bittle} imparts very seriously."

"Having someone other than your parents emphasize that it's important to get good grades -- that it's important to discipline your mind in school like your body in karate practice -- is really good reinforcement," said Kathleen Hodai, a Foreign Service officer whose son Jason studies with Bittle.

"It's made Jason focus on the fact that if he wants to continue in karate, it's important to keep his grades up, that the two ought to go together," she said.

Bittle, 29, spent his early childhood in the Barry Farms area of Southeast Washington and later dropped out of high school. He said that he learned about the value of good study habits the hard way and that it is easy for him to stress them now.

A championship fighter with an easy smile and a winning way with his young charges, Bittle got his start with Jhoon Rhee at 19, when he was asked to become an instructor.

"I had never taught anybody anything," he recalled. He said Rhee told him, " 'You teach kids how to live for 19 years.' "

"I said, 'There are things I did I wouldn't want them to do,' " Bittle said. Rhee replied, "That's what you teach them."

The Korean tae kwon do version of karate taught most widely in this country emphasizes wary aggression in the ring -- opponents often look and sound as if they want to drag entrails out of each other.

But it also strictly guards the damage that is allowed in competition and stresses courtliness after the match, when partners typically clasp like lost brothers and sisters.

When Abdalla competed at the Washington Convention Center, for instance, his students saw that he showed tender remorse when one of his lightning punches landed too hard.

They also saw the hug he gave the opponent he had just coolly creamed and the humble bow he made to a petulant loser.

Abdalla's fast and graceful moves and his demeanor have won him the admiration of students such as Carl Smith, 13, an eighth grader at Gaithersburg Junior High School. Smith, who said he turned to karate in part to channel his aggressions, has been moved by the instructor's example: "I don't respect any of my teachers as much as Mr. Abdalla. The teachers can't control people as much as he can. They can't control themselves as much as he can."

Like Bittle, Abdalla, a 23-year-old native of the District who has won about 200 trophies over the years, is a mesmerizing competitor. He was clearly a local favorite at the recent U.S. Capitol Classics tournament, where karate aficionados streamed to the sparring area to watch him take out several challengers.

Bittle and Abdalla are praised by parents for their patience in giving direction to their children, and the men say that karate gave direction to their own lives.

Without it, said Bittle, a world-ranked competitor, "I'd probably have been like some of my friends, smoking grass, getting high every day, doing nothing."

"I see myself a lot in my students," said Abdalla, a graduate of Mackin Catholic High School who earned his black belt by age 12. ". . . I grew up afraid of everything . . . . I know that when my instructor patted me on the head, it was a big motivation. It gave me a lot of confidence."

In the first of "The Karate Kid" movies, released three years ago, a slim, fearful, teen-aged protagonist is taught how to concentrate, a lesson that ultimately allows him to reduce a sadistic ruffian to jelly with one well-placed kick.

The movie pandered to youthful anxieties about repelling bullies and attracting girls. But it also was the first of the martial arts vehicles to show an unimposing teen-ager triumphing over evil without having to fight much or even raise his voice. The movies stressed that karate is more a state of mind than of body.

It had a dramatic influence on young people, parents of new martial arts students say.

Better grades and respect for others are two of the signs that karate's teachings are taking hold; self-confidence and self-control are the results most often cited by students and their parents.

"My son called the dentist 'sir' the other day, and the dentist said he never hears that anymore," said Danielle Smith, whose son Chuckie studies with Abdalla. "I said, 'They take karate.' "

Being able to teach this disciplined way of life takes "a very sincere instructor," Drabkin contended. "The instructor has to live it himself."

Students, in turn, have to agree to follow the schools' rules, the first being that they not use what they have learned in an abusive way.

"We're not going to teach them skills they can use on their parents and neighbors," Drabkin said. "We make it clear up front that they're not allowed to use it except to defend themselves."

Jason Hodai, 14, a student at the Regional Institute for Children and Adolescents, a Montgomery County school for learning-disabled students, said that after two years of karate study with Bittle, his grades have improved and he "can control myself much better.

"If I hadn't taken it, and somebody had gotten in my face, I would have started a fight. But now I just walk away."