People who talk about Wakefield High School often start with its disadvantages. They are clear enough, but only add to the importance of what an academic powerhouse the school has become.

Of Arlington's four high schools, Wakefield has the largest percentage of students (41 percent) with family incomes low enough to qualify for federal lunch subsidies. It also has a larger proportion of students whose parents speak a language other than English than any other secondary school in the county.

And yet, test records show, the boxy, old two- and three-story school on a hill above Leesburg Pike has emerged as one of the most academically challenging campuses in the country, and probably is one of the 10 most demanding regular enrollment schools serving low-income areas.

Wakefield has produced a recent national finalist in the Westinghouse Science Talent Search. Its Senior Project program requiring all 12th-graders to complete a major study or task is unique among public schools in the area. Its students carry a heavier load of Advanced Placement (AP) courses and tests than 95 percent of American high schools. It has built an advanced technology program that trains all ninth-graders in databases, desktop publishing, Visual Basic programming and PowerPoint presentation software, and it is moving toward long-term relationships with local employers in several electronic fields.

Principal Marie Shiels-Djouadi, a former nun, takes an aggressive approach to running the school and encourages students to keep a positive attitude toward their work. Her staff is accustomed to coaxing, prodding and sometimes just shoving students into some of the most difficult courses.

"I like the teachers and the administrators. They push us," said Ayesha King, a 16-year-old junior. She described the small learning communities, called houses, into which all ninth-graders are placed as part of Wakefield's Foundation Program for Academic Excellence. Students spend all day with a small team of teachers, who look for bits of unexpected effort and insight that can turn an alienated D student into an A-plus scholar.

At most American high schools, students are discouraged from enrolling in accelerated courses if their previous grades have been bad or their motivation weak. At Wakefield, counselors and teachers have displayed a contrary habit of anticipating the maturation of their students and looking for ways to give them more demanding work just as they reach the age where they can handle it.

One of last year's Wakefield graduates, Katrina Harpe, was admitted to Yale as a National Merit Scholar. Through most of her elementary and middle school years, she was never placed in a class for gifted students. She was a quiet child. Her parents did not have college degrees and did not ask for more enriched instruction. But the Wakefield staff identified her almost immediately as someone to point toward AP courses.

"We look around for the students who want to try," said Assistant Principal Doris Jackson. "We just continue to say to them, 'You can do it.' "

"At Wakefield," said Saiful Sikder a 17-year-old senior, "they just don't let you get by."

Wakefield had the usual problems of schools with many low-income children when, in 1987, then-Superintendent Arthur Gosling considered a drastic shock treatment--naming Shiels-Djouadi as principal. She had been an elementary school principal and an English-as-a-Second-Language specialist, dashing all over the district improving programs for failing children. She had the required knowledge and energy, but Shiels-Djouadi recalled, Gosling hesitated at appointing the county's first female high school principal.

"What do you know about football?" he asked.

She regarded him coolly. "I don't think football is important," she said.

In many school districts, those six words would mean no job. But Gosling was much more interested in results in the classroom, so Shiels-Djouadi was hired. The football team has rarely had a great year--the principal is particularly unforgiving of athletes whose grades slip--but the level of teaching has gone up several notches.

Luisa Coe, whose son Sebastian was recently elected president of next year's student government, said the array of courses impressed her. There are AP courses in English, American and European history, government, French, Latin, Spanish, biology, chemistry, physics, computer science, calculus and art. There are special technology and science labs on Saturdays, and all seniors are required to do a major academic project--yielding efforts such as Reshma Shahabuddin's paper last year on "A Dynamic Modified Hamiltonian Path Problem," or how to locate that asteroid heading for your planet.

Wakefield parents say they embrace the theme that vibrates through nearly every school initiative: Children from varied backgrounds all have enormous potential if the school staff makes certain that each has a close relationship with at least one adult. There is no formal mentoring program, but administrators, counselors and teachers make a point of ensuring that there is at least one staff member on each student's case.

Sherman Chin, the PTA president, said he initially expected an unruly campus. Then he encountered Shiels-Djouadi's strong views on respect and responsibility--no fighting, no insults, no bad language, no verbal abuse.

He said he anticipates no relaxation of standards, particularly as the staff moves vigorously toward forging relationships with local technology companies and introducing courses that meet the demand for graduates able to handle computer programs and the Internet.

The students appear to know what is coming, and they are seeking the right balance among the usual Wakefield emotions--excitement, fear and calculated adolescent distain for the rah-rah character of it all.

"The administrators really do care for you," said Virak Chhang, a senior. "They are always saying, 'How are you doing? Is it working out?' It's really supportive, but it gets annoying after a while."

WAKEFIELD PROFILE:

* First opened: 1954.

* Total students: 1,516.

* Low income students: 41 percent.

* Challenge index*: 0.985 Advanced Placement tests per student (top 5 percent of United States).

* Standards of Learning (SOL) tests passing rate: reading, 66 percent (state 72 percent); writing, 58 percent (state 71 percent); U.S. history, 18 percent (state 30 percent).

* Famous graduate: Hunter "Patch" Adams.

* Some favorite teachers and staff: Elliot Johnson (history), Frances Turner (counselor), Doug Burns (English), Robert O'Donnell (English), Laurell Wiersma (math), Georganna Schell (technology), Mike Grill (history), Kirsten Raastad (English), Jina Davidson (photo and art).

* Cafeteria atrocity: greasy tamale pie.

* Cafeteria triumph: fresh apples.

* Pet peeves: unappreciative students, over-solicitous administrators, poor PTA attendance.

* Favorite adjectives for school: lively, vivacious, challenging.

*Challenge index is a device to measure how hard schools are trying to coax students to take AP courses and AP tests. It measures the average number of AP tests given per graduating senior.

CAPTION: Principal Marie Shiels-Djouadi chats with Becton Templeton, 17, and other students during lunch about how they think they did on the Standards of Learning tests.