THIS PAST week, at high school graduation ceremonies around the area, there were some missing faces: the kids who'd dropped out along the way. Where were they? What went wrong and what might have gone right?

For the past three months, I've tried to answer these questions by tracking down members of the 1987 ninth-grade class at Alexandria's Francis Hammond Junior High School, kids who should now be graduating from high school. I thought the ones who hadn't made it could give me the answers. In a way they did, through their insights and the logic of their choices.

Above all, though, I learned that prime drop-out candidates are spotted at an early age and that programs to help are usually too little and often too late.

They aren't always easy to locate -- by definition, of course, dropouts have dropped out. The school system says that about 4.5 percent of ninth graders at Hammond don't make it to the neighboring T.C. Williams High School (which had its graduation on Friday) but no one knows exactly how many there are. My reporting suggests the figure may be higher.

In the end, I found a dozen dropouts -- about a fifth of the 63 that officials said had quit school since ninth grade. All still live in the Washington area, and two have earned their general equivalency diploma (G.E.D.). One has an infant and two others are pregnant. Most were unemployed.

Istarted my search with Louise Nickens, who may have the toughest job in the Alexandria school system. She heads the new dropout prevention program, which means she spends most of her time worrying about students in junior high and high school.

But she is limited in what she can do, in large part because her staff is so small. Working with her are a social worker and two teachers who teach basic math and English. Her social worker visits and counsels 55 elementary and junior high school kids whom they have identified as potential dropouts.

For the most part, Nickens and her staff concentrate on the teenagers who have left school. So far this year they have persuaded 73 dropouts either to attend an alternative all-day school that they run or to enter a job-training program. Four former ninth-graders who were short four credits toward the 10th grade when they left school earned their needed credits. They will be 10th-graders at Williams next fall.

Dropout prevention programs like this have been around for years, and some have been successful. But for those who work in the field, it quickly becomes obvious that intervention ought to have begun years before.

You get a sense of that when you visit Susan Outman, who works at Alexandria's MacArthur Elementary School. Outman knows a lot about dropouts too. In fact, Outman says, it's easy to spot them in the fourth or fifth grade. They are the ones who don't bring any pencils or paper to school, who don't finish their work and who get frustrated easily. They don't like being singled out for help and, as a result, they don't like coming to Outman's special-education class. They begin to withdraw -- from teachers, from their parents and from school itself.

Outman got the unhappy proof of this at the T.C. Williams graduation: Some of the missing were the very kids she taught when she was working at Lyles-Crouch Elementary School.

Nationally, to be sure, the problem is far more urgent than it is in Alexandria. Nationwide only about 71 percent of ninth-graders complete their high school education. Still, last year, 3.1 percent of the students at Williams, Hammond and George Washington Junior High School, the city's three secondary schools, dropped out. (Of those, 20 percent were white, 66 percent were black, 13.4 percent were Hispanic and the remainder were of other origins. The racial breakdown of the three schools is 34 percent white, 44 percent black, 14 percent Hispanic and 8 percent other.) At Williams alone, 3.4 percent of the 2,121 students dropped out before graduation.

Nickens points out that these dropouts have everything stacked against them -- often long before they quit. In a report about her program, "Project Y.E.S., Youth Experiencing Success," she suggests the special viciousness of the cycle:

"In many cases, faculty members have given up on the at-risk students and they have given up on themselves. It is often felt that these students (1) reduce the grade point average of the schools, (2) contribute to low standardized test scores, (3) lower attendance rates, and (4) take away instructional time from students who are ready to learn. Now, we say, the school would benefit if these students quit school." Along the way, I learned a few rules about kids who drop out. Rule No. 1. Dropouts are not going to return to the school and programs that they left. You realize how true that is when you talk to the 19-year-old who makes the Charles Houston Center in Alexandria his second home. When he was in elementary school, Susan Outman had already noticed him -- she told his mother that he showed all the signs of a potential dropout. He told me he quit school because he didn't like it. His mother told me that he dropped out because he couldn't read well.

One day at Arthur Treacher's Fish and Chips, he talked about the stigma of the special-education class. He would arrive late because he didn't want his friends to see him. He didn't like to carry his books because they were "big" and different from those his friends had.

He asked me not to mention special education in this article, just report that he didn't like school. I said that wasn't the truth. He then said I couldn't use his name.

He said he was smarter than some of the kids in special education, but he wasn't doing well enough to be in regular classes. He would fall asleep in class or talk back to the teacher. He got a lot of laughs from his classmates. He also got suspended.

Since dropping out, his odyssey has been rocky. First he joined a Job Corps program in Southwest Washington. He stayed two months. He has subsequently been arrested for selling cocaine and carrying a semi-automatic pistol. He pleaded guilty to the gun charge and got 90 days in jail and a $200 fine. The drug charge was not prosecuted.

Because he can't read well, he hasn't taken the test to get his driver's license. He has been stopped by the police a couple of times and charged with driving without a license.

His mother wants him to get his diploma or G.E.D. But he doesn't want to. "I'll be 20 soon. What would I look like sitting up in school?" he asked rhetorically. Rule No. 2. Dropouts need classes and activities that will draw upon their strengths while they work on their weaknesses. They need something they feel good about, that can show them school isn't all hard work.

That's what an 18-year-old, who also wanted to remain anonymous, thinks might have helped him stay in school. The young man was repeating the ninth grade at Hammond in 1988 when he just got "tired" of school. "The classes weren't challenging," he said. He liked to write rap music and draw pictures, but he wasn't interested in the school's extracurricular activities, like the band or chorus. He liked basic math but lost interest when it came time to learn square roots. "What's the point?" he asked, shrugging.

The only thing he soon came to enjoy about school was "going to see people." He cut classes and sometimes days of school. He was suspended several times, but he returned with his mother and promised to do better.

After he was suspended in the fall of 1988, he never went back. He moved to New York to live with his grandmother, his father's mother. His parents are divorced.

For weeks, he looked for a job. Everywhere, he was asked if he had a high school diploma or G.E.D. Frustrated, he stopped by Queensborough Community College and inquired about what he had to do to take the G.E.D.

He was advised to take a pre-test to determine what subjects he was weak in. He did well enough on the pre-test that he took the G.E.D., which he passed without remedial help.

He works now as a courtesy clerk at a Giant in Northern Virginia. He has taken some classes at the local community college and hopes to become a musician or commercial artist. He does not feel any connection to his former classmates who graduated on Friday. "I was never really excited or interested in the hype of graduation," he said. Rule No. 3. Some kids need to be pushed and pushed.

April Bradley was one of them. She dropped out of Williams while repeating 10th grade. Her guidance counselor, Regina Duncan, remembers her well. She tried to get her involved in various programs to keep her in school, but Bradley was tired. She also couldn't adjust to the size of the student body. "It's too many people . . . . I don't like to be bothered with a lot of people."

Bradley said she saw a commercial on television about the Job Corps training program. She called for information, and in September 1988 she and a girlfriend (a dropout from the same class) took the bus to the Woodstock Job Corps Center in Baltimore County. They stayed two weeks, got homesick and returned to Alexandria. Job Corps officials called Bradley and urged her to come back. She did.

Arvin Lane, the director of the center, which serves about 500 16- to 21-year-olds, remembers her well. He monitored her progress after developing a father-daughter relationship with her. She did satisfactory work. "She was friendly and outgoing," he says.

But on July 3, she went home for the holiday weekend -- and stayed. She said, "I don't know why I didn't go back. When I went, I wanted to get away from around here. But then when I got back, I wanted to stay at home. Now I don't want to go any more."

Last April, Bradley said she was thinking about enrolling in the school system's G.E.D. program. Three weeks ago, she did. It is easy enough to say how things should be. In his State of the Union address, President Bush said his goal is to graduate 90 percent of high school students by the year 2000. But to reach any goal is going to take time, energy and resources at the elementary school level. That means more teachers, more teachers' aides, more volunteers, more role models and more creative programs. And that means more money.

In her "Project Y.E.S." report, Nickens used language that will give anyone who's ever been to a public school the shock of recognition:

"Helping at risk students is not easy," she wrote. "At-risk youths are not attractive. That is, they stand in contrast to the enthusiastic, bright students whose successes reaffirm that teachers are doing a good job. We must not give up on the at-risk student until we have exhausted every available means of help."

Susan Outman and her colleagues are working hard to keep kids motivated and interested in school. But there is much that is beyond their control.

Most evenings at the Houston Rec Center, there are three 13- and 14-year-old girls who come with their babies. There are 6- and 7-year-olds who stay until their play time is over at 6 p.m. and then go out into the nearby grass fields to play until someone comes to take them home.

Louise Nickens does have a tough job.

Athelia Knight is a Washington Post reporter. Staff researcher Lucy Shackelford contributed to this article.