Classes were canceled yesterday at the District's top-performing high school after nearly all of the teachers failed to show up for work as part of a protest over staff cuts.

Of 36 full- and part-time teachers, four reported to work at Benjamin Banneker Senior High School in Northwest, said Juan R. Baughn, the assistant superintendent who oversees the school. Many of the teachers at Banneker -- a citywide "academic high school" that focuses on college preparation -- called in sick.

At Banneker, which has about 400 students and the highest test scores of any D.C. public high school, students were sent to the library, gymnasium and cafeteria. Some read or played cards or board games. Many others called their parents and went home.

One student, Raymond Brown, 18, described yesterday as "a waste of a school day" and said the staff cuts made him feel as though city leaders "don't care about us."

"Everyone already thinks DCPS is the worst school system," Brown said. "This is just making it even worse."

Several teachers who did not report to work said they were protesting the elimination of jobs at Banneker -- part of a systemwide reduction in personnel. The school board voted this month to eliminate the jobs of 557 school-based employees, including 285 teachers, to balance its budget. Those cuts have sparked complaints from parents, teachers and students throughout the city.

Cheryl Gooding, a teacher at Banneker for 17 years and the parent of a 10th-grader at the school, said teachers stayed home to make a statement. "I believe the cuts are going to be devastating," Gooding said. "We're hoping that the central office hears our cry. We're hoping they can overturn it, not only for our school but for the system across the board."

Gooding, head of the math department, said that Banneker already had a skeleton staff and that teachers were particularly upset that the cuts were being made at "one of the flagship schools in the city."

Asked if she was sick, Gooding said, "Sick and tired." She said she planned to return to work today.

Officials in the 64,200-student school system, caught off guard by the sickout, said there were no plans to back down from the job cuts. They said that the cuts at Banneker would include a part-time social studies teacher, an art teacher, a music teacher, a custodian and a clerk. The school's principal, Patricia Long Tucker, said two other part-time teachers are expected to leave and may not be replaced for budgetary reasons.

Baughn called the teachers' action "inappropriate" and said they had not approached him about their concerns. "I hope that the teachers feel they made their point and their message is out there and they come back and they do what they have always done well at Banneker," Baughn said.

A school spokeswoman, Lucy Young, could not say whether disciplinary action would be taken against teachers. She said the matter is under review by Interim Superintendent Robert C. Rice.

School board member Carrie Thornhill, a mayoral appointee, defended the cuts, saying officials had little choice. "We've got to make sure our costs are in line with our budget," Thornhill said.

The Washington Teachers' Union did not sanction yesterday's action, said spokesman Terence Cooper. But he said the union understands the teachers' frustration and disagrees with the way school officials are determining which teachers should be dismissed, calling it arbitrary. School officials defended the process.

Students and parents at Banneker said they were upset with the school board, superintendent and mayor for making the cuts.

Amanda Everett, 17, said that she understood why teachers stayed home and that she agreed with their cause. "I am disturbed that five teachers have to be cut," she said. "It's hurting us, the kids." She added: "Today I could have learned something instead of sitting in the cafeteria."

Mallori Edley, 16, said the lack of class yesterday meant less time to prepare for final exams. "We're the ones that are hurting from this," Edley said. "We have to think about our future."

Her father, Carlton Edley, who came to Banneker to pick her up, said, "It's not fair to the students, as usual."