Former Arlington School Board member Evelyn Reid Syphax remembers visiting elementary schools during the 1983-84 school year and finding disproportionate numbers of black students in special education classes. She was convinced they didn't belong there.

"I asked the teachers if they felt there was a real need for another level of placement for children who were underachievers but did not need special education," Syphax said.

The teachers said there was a need; the proposal was funded, and last September seven Arlington schools launched the $160,000 effort. Underachievers spent half of each day in the intensive program, which stressed reading, writing, listening and speaking skills, and the more elusive concerns of test anxiety and low self-esteem.

The program, in schools with high populations of minority students, was dubbed the "Elementary Basic Skills Three-Four Program" and was designed "with the minority student in mind," said School Board member Frank K. Wilson.

Of 96 students, 71 of them black, who enrolled in the program last year, 65 remained in May and 47 of those were blacks. Sixteen of the 96 moved from the school system; 12 went back to regular classrooms, and three were assigned to special education teachers.

The seven teachers in the program attended training workshops that focused on concrete ways to present subject matter, games that could help teach and appropriate expectations for students.

At the end of the year teachers reported improvement in the students' mathematics skills and vocabulary, as well as decreased test anxiety and greater self-confidence.

The reading levels of 22 students, based on standardized tests, improved by at least 1 1/2 grade levels. Another 37 students were reading at one grade level higher than where they started.

This year, program funding grew to $259,000, adding 3 1/2 teaching positions and enabling full-day basic skills classes in some schools.

School officials agree it is crucial to target underachievers early and worry about students who are too old for basic skills classes.

This year, a pilot project at Washington-Lee High School in Arlington is directed toward those students: 54 freshmen and sophomores whose reading levels lag behind their grade levels by at least two years, as measured on standardized tests. The school has a 42 percent minority student enrollment, and about half the students in the program are nonwhite.

Program participants have four intensive classes -- English, math, science and social studies -- daily, and are evaluated by their teachers every three weeks.