When Prince William County eighth grader Leslie Trace wants to answer a question posed by her Latin teacher, she doesn't raise her hand. She picks up a phone and calls him.

Trace and six classmates at Godwin Middle School in Dale City are among a growing number of Virginia students participating in a project called the "electronic classroom," which combines televised instruction broadcast from a school near Richmond with telephonic communication between teacher and student.

"This is Leslie from Godwin Middle School," she announces proudly, "and I've got a derivative of ascendit. It's 'ascent.' "

On the television screen in the corner of the classroom, Latin teacher Craig McGhee beams and says, "That's great, Leslie!"

As he writes the English word next to the Latin, the image is transmitted to 88 students in 20 schools scattered around Virginia, as well as to the 12 Latin I students watching TV monitors in his own classroom at Varina High School in Henrico County.

By the time McGhee is ready to go on to the next word, magna, students from Fluvanna, Middlesex, King George and Powhatan counties have added their suggestions to his growing list of derivatives, and he in turn has praised them by name.

With Latin teachers in short supply, and the Virginia Board of Education requiring that a growing list of courses be offered in all high schools, electronic classrooms are likely to become increasingly popular.

Similar programs are in place in other states, including Maryland, where four high schools in Anne Arundel County share a cable hookup. Two schools in Carroll County also have such an arrangement, state education officials said. In Texas, an educational service called Texas TI-IN Network Inc. provides televised instruction with phone hookups to schools in 22 states.

The Varina classroom opened in fall 1984 with two courses serving 84 students in nine Virginia school districts. This year the program offers four courses -- Latin I and II, advanced placement English and calculus -- to 348 students in 38 schools.

Recently a second electronic classroom opened in the mountainous southwest corner of Virginia. Located in Wise, it provides televised classes with telephone hookups to 19 schools where 83 students would have no other means of taking advanced placement courses.

"The electronic classroom can reduce the disparity we find between school districts," said Superintendent of Public Instruction S. John Davis. "In Northern Virginia, advanced placement courses are standard, but in rural or poorer districts" they are not available, a situation he called "intolerable."

Prince William County, with 39,106 students, is the largest school district in the state using the electronic classroom.

"But the needs we saw here were similar to the needs of small school divisions," said William N. Cox, the county's associate superintendent for instruction. "In some middle schools {grades 6 through 8}, the interest in Latin was so low that it was not cost-effective to hire a teacher . . . . When there were fewer than 10 students interested, rather than say flatly, 'We can't provide the course,' we chose to offer the electronic classroom."

Prince William uses the broadcasts in four middle schools. Twenty students participate, with course enrollments ranging from three to seven.

Davis foresees electronic classroom facilities being set up in the Shenandoah Valley and on the Northern Neck. The cost for equipping each classroom is $225,000 to $250,000, according to Davis.

The operational costs at Varina are about $311,000 annually. school districts that use the service pay the state $245 per student per course.

Each satellite class -- some with only a single student -- has an adult "facilitator," often a school librarian, and a telephone hookup with the main classroom.

Not all calls to the teacher are academic. One day recently, a girl called in to compliment calculus teacher Carolyn Williamson on her new hairstyle.

But most students call with the kinds of questions or comments heard in regular classrooms.

Tonie Lorson, a math and English teacher who serves as the facilitator at Godwin, said the children have taken to their televised class "very well."

"They're all media buffs, anyhow. And they love to call in -- but nothing can replace a real teacher," said Lorson, who has a background in Latin and acts as an auxiliary instructor.

"When we had technical problems the last two weeks in September and didn't get the transmission, I could keep the kids going."

Like anything electronic, the classroom has its glitches.

Transmission is a delicate series of relays, which begin in a darkened control room at Varina where technician Bill Bailey operates a bewildering array of consoles and monitors. The signal goes to a 100-foot-high radio tower on the campus and then to Channel 23/57, 20 miles away in Chesterfield County.

From there, the signal is blasted to microwave relay stations in central Virginia, from which the schools pick up their pictures on Channel 57.

"We've had real problems with transmission around South Boston and Chatham" in south-central Virginia, Bailey said. "And if the relay near Fredericksburg breaks down, Prince William doesn't get its signal."

Another stumbling block has been mail service. Teachers mail tests to the local facilitators, who administer them and mail them back to Varina.

There has been enough delay and loss, according to David Saunders, coordinator of the electronic classroom, that the purchase of telecopiers is being considered.

Teaching in the electronic classroom has its pluses and minuses.

McGhee says he has become something of a television personality through his video teaching, not only among his students but among adults who audit his class.

"I've been stopped on the street in Richmond by someone who said, 'I know you from TV,' " McGhee said.

But that, he said, is the extent of the glamor. "I make $21,000 a year."

McGhee and his three colleagues at Varina said teaching in an electronic classroom is fun but exhausting. Behind each 50-minute period is three hours of preparation, McGhee said, so that he knows exactly what doodles to use to illustrate each vocabulary word. "But it's important, too, to leave room for some of the spontaneity you have in an ordinary class."

"We've been very lucky with our teachers, but the job has a high burnout rate." Saunders said. "Two years may be the max."

"A strong personality" tops Saunders' list of teacher qualifications, followed by knowledge of subject matter.

"It also helps if you can doodle, talk, listen and keep your train of thought at the same time," he said.

From Godwin Middle School each day at noon, it all looks pretty easy. Only the tests look hard, but these eighth graders are eager.

"It'll improve my vocabulary on my SATs," said Latin student Matt Day. "You need high verbal scores."

"It'll help me get into Thomas Jefferson," announced Scott Oldfield, referring to the Annandale science and technology school for gifted students.

"It'll improve my vocabulary and I'll be a better writer," said Leslie Trace.

"I wanted to be different from my sister," said Danny Housier. "She didn't take Latin."