The Franklin School, a century-old Washington architectural treasue that has sometimes been just a step away from the wrecker's hall, has survived to house an unusual educational program that features committed teachers, innovative supervisors and a new definition of the word "adult."

The program exists despite dingy walls, questionable mechanical and electrical systems and no money in budget for anything other than teacher salaries. No materials, no routine maintenance.

"We have developed excellent begging techniques," said Mary G. Turner, the assistant superintendent for adult education in the D.C. public schools. She is credited with keeping the 9-year-old program alive.

The Adult Education Demonstration Center, as the program at Franklin is known, admits free any D.C. resident over 16. Many students are in their 20s and 30s and some have been in their 60s.

"For whatever reason," Turner said, "We're getting a lot of recent high school dropouts. Maybe it's the economic conditions. If they are going to school, they aren't busting into your house and mine."

About 2,400 students are enrolling at Franklin in day and evening classes and enrollment has never been limited. Almost half of the 21,347 persons enrolled citywide in adult education programs are unemployed; more than half are between 16 and 21 years old.

It's sad but very true that many who come to us literally cannot read anything, some can't spell 'cat'," said Gial Brown, the "master teacher" who supervises reading and grammer programs at Franklin for those who read at an eigth grade level or less.

"Because they were quiet or polite or didn't create trouble in the classroom, (other schools) just passed them on from year to year," Brown said.

The primary goal for many Franklin students is to pass a test known as "GED" - general educational development - and 230 did so last year. A passing grade is accepted by many colleges and universities in place of a high school diploma.

Brown, who like other Franklin teachers does more than one thing, also gives a virtuoso orientation lecture to those students 21 and under who are entering school (Older students don't need oreintation, the staff has decided).

"What we want," Brown explained to nine beginners last Tuesday, "are people who are mature enough to cope with an adult edu cation center...YOu don't have to come...The ability or desire to learn will come from you..."

She expains about testing and placement, that each student will have his own assignment based on what he needs, that he can choose his hours and his days, but that the learning rate will accelerate if the student comes every day. Are there questions?

"How long before I can take the GED?"

"The GED is a difficult test," Brown says. "If you can't read very well, you're not going to pass the GED. Some who read well take it within a month and a half; others take much longer; some never pass it. I can't tell you when, it all depends on you."

Then she asks the questions. "Why did you leave shcool," she demands of a young woman.

"I had a baby" the woman said. "I had to stay at home." Many at Franklin are in that category. There is a day-care center in the basement of the school, but it is not just a baby-sitting service. The mothers have to spend the lunch hour ith their children and take instruction in child care.

"Why did you leave you last school?" Brown asks one of young man.

"Cause I was bored," he said.

"Why?"

"The teachers rejected everything you did," he said. "If we had a rap session they rejected that. It gets like the military."

"We have rules too," Brown announced for the first time. "No smoking in the building" no loitering in the halls; quiet in the classrooms."

The orientation classes and strict controls over the entrances to the building were established about a year ago "to regain control of our building," as master teacher Sue White put it.

It took several months. A teacher was stationed at the door to check ID cards. Somebody patrolled the halls. "They thought it we'd knock it off in a week or so and that this was going to be a cool place to hang out," White said. The teachers won. The halls and classrooms were models of decorum during a reporter's visits.

The experience left some of the staff bitter about the rest of the public school system. Disruptive students, teachers complained, were routinely "transfered " to Franklin. 'That's not what we're here for," a teacher said.

Turner, the assistant superintendent, blames herself. "We went to a couple of regional superintendents and said, 'Before you give up on a student, let us try.' But some of our guidelines were forgotten. I think we're getting it straighened out."

Turner likes to assign catchy names to the various courses (PEST for Parent Education for Survival Techniques) is what they call the day care center but behind the camouflage are basics in reading and mathematics. Typing and shorthand are also available.

"People are fussing about practical education," said Sue White, "but that's what we've been teaching here for years." There was a class Wednesday on the tactics of the slick used car salesman waving a no-down-payment contract.

The master teachers have heavy responsibilities - they must teach half a day, design curriculum and supervise assistants. "Franklin is where we do our pioneering for the entire adult education program," Turner said. "We are not afraid to make mistakes there."

But three of the four master teachers are "acting master teachers" because the extra money that is supposed to go with the responsibility has been frozen, along with the budget for teaching materials.

Some equipment remains from the years after the center was started in 1969 under an $800,000 federal grant. Federal funding ended in 1971. Turner has begged and borrowed - first form Model Cities, then from federal impact aid funds to keep the program alive.

In 1974, for the first time, Franklin was included in the regular public school budget, but today's school budget includes only money for salaries.

So teachers develop their own materials, dig into their own pockets to buy them or "scrounge" workbooks form publishers.

When they needed a highly regarded set of TV tapes to teach mathematics students and faculty held fund raising bake sales. In three months they generated $2,400, bought the tapes and fixed the old TV set.

Turner estimates that the citywide adult education program produces more than 1,200 GED "graduates" a year, including the 230 from Franklin Many students holding high school diplomas have passed Civil Service examinations or won job promotions after brushing up basic skills at Franklin.

A measure of the adult education program's success had been that it has generated its own political support: students have been known to jam he school board hearing room when a budget cut wa sthreatened.

Turner said that with new school Supt. Vincent Reed, "for the first time in a long time we have a school superintendent who understands and believes in adult education."

Money remains a problem. The Franklin enrollment continues to grow, but the staff size stays the same 28 teachers, many of them part-time. There are also 15 part-time aides and volunteers.

In Sue White's math class last week, Charles McKinney, 27, was poring over one of those bar graphs that show up in standardized tests to see if you understand bar graphs.

"I hope I can pass my GED, and then maybe try at college - nothing heavy at first, just a course or two, "McKinney said.