Wilma Waldron rummaged through the barrel and pulled out a piece of paper that lit up the gap-toothed smiles of her third-grade class at Yorkshire Elementary School. Excused from running laps in PE, it said. Then she pulled out a no-homework, no-trouble voucher. The little faces went joyous. "Yeaaah," they yelled.

Maybe it's not Prussian discipline, but these inducements are helping instill in students a zeal for coming to class that has turned Yorkshire from the worst-attended elementary school in Prince William County three years ago to the best, based on its record for last month.

"You really have to make kids want to come to school," Principal Otelia Frazier said. "We make things so exciting that they just want to be here. If the kids are here, they're going to learn."

Yorkshire rewards individuals and classes. Each day a class has perfect attendance, it gets noted on a chart in the lunchroom. After a week, the little hands get to reach for certificates out of the barrel. Every six weeks, children with perfect records get together for a movie, an ice cream party or a karate demonstration. That last one still has children chopping the air with their arms.

"There are those who say that learning should be its own reward," Frazier said. "The reality is that not very many of us go to work and don't expect a paycheck at the end."

The program won Yorkshire the 1990 Excellence in Education Award given by Virginia Tech at its annual education conference scheduled for today and Friday. The award is one of 18 given to schools in Virginia, and is the second one Yorkshire has won; last year it received recognition for the general school improvement program that was narrowed this year to focus on attendance.

With a base of mostly lower-income, highly mobile families, the school has long been bedeviled by the problem of students who don't show up. For years Yorkshire, which has 60 percent of its students on the free or reduced-price lunch program, was ranked among the worst schools in the county for attendance.

In 1987, one student had perfect attendance. Then the school launched its improvement program, boosting the number to 18. Last year, 127 students had a perfect record and the school was safely entrenched in the top of the attendance heap.

"We were a school no one expected anything from," said Karen Foroughi, a guidance counselor and architect of the program. "Our kids come to school dirty, hungry, poor. School is the best thing that happens to our kids."

But with the economy on the skids, Frazier doesn't expect job-chasing parents to stay in the area any longer now than they have in the past.

Of the 365 students who started this school year at Yorkshire, probably fewer than a third will be there at the end, Frazier said. Some seats turn over two or three times a year.

"For however long we have a child, we make school the place he wants to be," Frazier said.

Judging by the smiles and enthusiasm, not to mention the numbers, it seems to be working. Waldron, who had the only class this week without a student absent, asked her charges why they come to school and most students bubbled over with answers about "education," and "learning to read and write." One budding type A replied, "to get ready for college." And the class contrarian said, "the parties."

Asked who was planning to get a perfect attendance reward at the end of the year, virtually every hand shot up.

"I can't even go a year without missing a day," Foroughi said. "I've already missed three this year."

"The only bad thing is that some children come to school sick because they want to be here so bad," Waldron said.

As if on cue, her room filled with the sound of tiny coughs.