IN THE Ward 1 section of Washington, parents have a healthy respect for their area's elementary schools. At the junior high level, however, many lose confidence in the local schools, according to Ward 1 school board member Wilma Harvey. The same problem exists throughout most sections of the District of Columbia. Many parents seek out the few public junior high schools with excellent reputations or turn to private and parochial schools. Academic performance also falters at this level, and more than half the city's dropouts leave school in their junior high school years.

The effort to solve these problems is one of the most important challenges facing D.C. School Superintendent Andrew Jenkins and the board of education. The goal is to have a system of effective junior high schools in every part of the city, strong enough to convince more parents that they do not have to pull their children out of the system altogether or send them on long bus rides to public schools across town, schools that are able to inspire more students to excel and complete their education.

Now the school system is banking on a program called "schools of distinction" in all eight wards of the city. It certainly sounds as though the concept could work, so long as certain large "ifs" are carefully addressed. It can work if the effort does not bog down in bureaucratic delays and if administrators are not so thinly stretched on other initiatives that they are unable to devote sufficient time to monitoring progress.

In Ward 7, the special school will be Sousa Junior High. Earnest Devoe, assistant superintendent for the division of junior high schools, says that Sousa's new focus will add advanced academic courses in math and science, buttressed by extra funding for new labs, computers and other equipment. The plan also involves academic clubs for students and exposure to career fields in aviation and meteorology. More foreign language courses will also be offered.

Academic performance in the city's elementary schools, while not setting any new national standards, has been adequate over the years. For some time, the real challenge could be found in the city's secondary schools. Junior highs such as Jefferson and Deal have always performed at an admirable level, but most of the 26 other schools with seventh- through ninth-grade classes have had real troubles. If the school system is able to raise standards in at least one such school in every ward, it will have taken a crucial first step.