IT IS A disturbing trend that in the city's public schools participation in and support for high school athletic programs have plummeted. At one time, 10 D.C. high schools had soccer teams. Now, only three do and there is no league in which to play. Only two District high schools have wrestling teams. Football games at Roosevelt High School once drew crowds of 5,000 or more. Now, Roosevelt officials are happy if they draw 200 fans to a game. Spingarn High School's football team has forfeited four games -- not enough players to field a team. The situationis the same in most D.C. public high schools and in most sports. Only basketball has remained popular.

Athletic programs that once were strong in the District have declined through official neglect. Facilities have deteriorated, there are few lights for playing fields, equipment is rusting, and uniforms are tattered. To revive these programs more money is needed. In Montgomery County, high school football teams are allowed four assistant coaches, each paid $2,800. A head football coach in the District is paid only $1,450 and allowed just one assistant coach, who receives $700. City high schools receive about $5,000 for a football program, less than half the amount programs in some suburban schools receive.

Would the added expense be worth it? Yes. Sports can spark pride and school spirit for the athletes, their parents and their peers. Athletes can also learn the values of teamwork, confidence, leadership and responsibility. In some cases, going out for the team is the lure that brings a wavering student back to school.

At a critical moment in the history of the D.C. schools, officials rightly focused on raising funds for academic achievement, setting the problem of their deteriorating school buildings aside for a later day. The school system's athletic programs have suffered the same fate. Now it's time to strengthen them.