When Susan Akroyd, principal of Parklawn Elementary School in Fairfax, set out three years ago to improve her students' academic performance, she knew that getting parents more involved would be key. She also knew all the reasons that would be next to impossible.

Many of the parents were poor. Some spoke no English. Some came from cultures where parents are not welcome at school. Others had no time or transportation to get to school for teacher conferences and other activities.

So Akroyd decided that if the parents couldn't come to school, she would bring the school to them. She and her staff rented a two-bedroom apartment in the Orleans Village housing complex in the Lincolnia neighborhood, where about half of the school's families lived, and turned it into a family center for Parklawn parents and students.

The center, about 1 1/2 miles from the school, gives parents instruction in English, health and nutrition, good parenting, applying for work, finding a doctor, riding the bus--skills that on the surface have little to do with their children's grades but much to do with raising the quality of their lives.

In addition, teachers and guidance counselors come to the center for parent conferences, and students from Thomas Jefferson High School provide after-school tutoring at the center.

"We were wrestling with how to improve our students' achievement, and we realized that if we provided more support for our parents, they'd be in a better position to support their children," Akroyd said. "You're talking about people who in many cases are just worried about finding a job and putting food on the table."

Several area schools have expressed interest in creating similar programs as educators and researchers increasingly note the strong link between parental involvement and students' academic success.

In the District, many schools have family centers, with resources ranging from pamphlets on school and city services to classes in parenting. In Prince George's County, Southern Management Co. has converted apartments at two of its properties into afternoon tutoring centers.

But Parklawn's center is believed to be the first of its kind in the area.

A grant from the federal Title I program covers the salaries of three staff members--coordinator Harriet Sava, teacher Sandy Fraser and parent liaison Martha Abreu--and the center's discounted rent. Charles E. Smith Properties charges $262 a month for an apartment that normally rents for about $900.

Several area agencies and businesses provide direct or in-kind contributions. For example, Inova Fairfax Hospital's Partnership for Healthier Kids gives health lessons and helps families find medical care. The Capital Area Food Bank teaches parents how to cook cheap, nutritious meals--then gives families food to re-create the meals at home.

In every lesson, every activity, the common thread is reminding parents that they are their children's first and most important teachers.

When the center opened as usual at 10:30 on a recent morning, 10 women streamed in accompanied by almost as many small children. The fact that they spoke several languages was lost as they smiled and greeted each other.

"They encourage me here," said Naila Farook, who arrived from Pakistan 1 1/2 years ago and has been using the center for about three months. "Since I start coming here, I think my English is much better. This is very good for those ladies who come here from different countries."

She said it is also good for her 7-year-old, who comes for tutoring.

The women gathered in the center's living room, which has a lending library with storybooks for children and information for parents. The children sat in a circle on the floor for a warm-up exercise in which they were told to wiggle various body parts--learning to follow directions in English before they start school.

In the kitchen, meanwhile, Emperatriz Zaragoza was cutting out laminated pictures to decorate Parklawn classrooms: Teachers often bring over such projects to allow parents to volunteer even though they're not ready to brave the classroom.

The same day, Consuelo Reynoso came in for a conference about her 4-year-old daughter, Lupita, with Parklawn's Head Start intern, Valera Lynch. Abreu translated for them.

During the discussion, Reynoso mentioned that her memory wasn't good--the result of a stroke she suffered after Lupita's birth. Lynch volunteered to set up an appointment for her at a brain injury clinic.

When Lynch asked about Reynoso's four other children, she said she was worried about her 12-year-old son, an A and B student who recently brought home two D's from Holmes Middle School. Abreu told Reynoso she would schedule a conference with his counselor; she also would take Reynoso to the appointment and translate.

"Consuelo doesn't like to ask for anything," Abreu sighed. But Reynoso is a regular, she said, and the staff knows what she needs.

Reynoso, 35, moved here from Mexico seven years ago. After a year of English-as-a-second-language classes at the center, she is proud that she can call a taxi and give her address in English. She often baby-sits for children in the complex, and Abreu wants to help her become a certified child-care provider.

Many of the women don't realize they have marketable skills, Abreu said, and the center has helped several get jobs. One did so well in center programs that she now works as an instructional assistant at Parklawn.

"This is a beautiful place," Reynoso said. "I learn a lot of things here. My baby, Lupita, learned her colors and how to count to five before she even went to school."

Akroyd said the school is tracking the students whose families use the center to determine whether it gets academic results. The evidence so far is only anecdotal.

"We've still got a long way to go," she said, "but we're slowly making strides."

CAPTION: Harriet Sava, coordinator of the Parklawn Family Center in Fairfax, leads an English lesson while parents sit in.

CAPTION: The family center is in the Orleans Village housing complex, where about half of Parklawn Elementary School families live.

CAPTION: Consuelo Reynoso, left, 35, a mother of five, listens in with other parents and children during a class at the center.