Charles (Master Gunny) Washington looked at the two dozen students in his Navy ROTC class and thought to himself how little they knew about their own history. None of them was alive when civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. was gunned down; none of them had any firsthand knowledge of the sit-ins, the protest marches, the violence of the 1960s.

He couldn't do anything about that, but he was determined to make them think about it. He already had planted the seeds at their last class meeting, showing them a videotape of some of King's followers being taunted and beaten by whites as they tried to integrate a restaurant counter in Nashville. King's followers never fought back. At the end, a student turned to Washington and asked: What would have happened if the nonviolent movement had been violent?

That gave Washington an idea. At the next class, he divided the class into two groups, violent versus nonviolent, and told them to argue the following question: Which approach was the best way to desegregate schools?

Quickly, the two sides became embroiled in a free-wheeling shouting match, with Washington egging them on, moving around the room in his gray pinstriped suit and matching gray cowboy boots, either challenging an illogical statement or acting as a devil's advocate.

"We're going to use some psychology . . . " began Taurice McMillan, leader of the nonviolent group.

"Damn the psychology," Washington chimed in. "My thing is, if we can't get it, let's blow up their stuff."

McMillan shook his head, saying violence was senseless, that it solved nothing. The leader of the violent group, Lionell Ben, interrupted. "I'm tired of getting hit over the head singing 'We Shall Overcome,' " he said.

Delighted, Washington slid into a chair and let the debate go on without him. As the class neared the end, he posed a final question: "Have we {blacks} ever in history accomplished anything through violence?" As the bell rang and the students filed out into the hallway, the debate raged on.

If there is a secret to success at McKinley, it seems to be shared by teachers such as Washington, social studies teacher Leroy Swain and French teacher Vernon Williams, who are able to motivate their students to come to class, turn in their homework assignments on time and participate in discussions.

These three are not the only teachers who are recognized as having a special ability to push their students to higher levels. The rest of the faculty members are able to do it occasionally, but Washington and the others do it consistently. The difference shows up in their classrooms: They are better run and better attended, the students rarely come late and disruptions are not as common.

Yet they are hardly cast from the same mold. Washington, 45, is loud and profane, prancing around the classroom, tossing off anecdotes from his Marine Corps days and his three tours of duty in Vietnam. Swain, 39, is soft-spoken and reassuring, always soliciting his students' opinions and ready to share a story from his moonlighting job as a cabdriver. Williams, 42, is energetic and friendly, greeting his students with an easy smile or a "Hi, doll baby," occasionally tapping a student playfully on the head to get his attention.

Stylistic differences aside, there are strong similarities in their teaching methods. They are well-prepared and organized. They rarely come to class late, they start working as soon as the bell rings, they hand out homework assignments and never fail to collect them, grade them and hand them back.

They are blunt and willing to give their students realistic evaluations. They tell students when they have done poorly, praise them when they have done well, and don't pretend that one student's achievements cast glory on the rest of the class.

Frequently, they take a personal interest in their students. Washington, for example, has intervened on behalf of several failing students, persuading them to attend summer school, then making sure they get to school by taking them there in his car. Carolyn Mosby, an English teacher whose ninth- and 10th-grade classes are well-attended and lively, adopted a 10th grader in one of her classes several years ago. The boy, who was having family problems, later transferred to a school in Prince George's County, where Mosby lives.

They take little for granted, least of all their relationships with their students. "As a teacher you rate a certain amount of respect that goes along with the position," Washington said one day after class. "All over and above that, you have to earn. You have to go a little further all the time . . . . That kid has to respect you as a person . . . . You have to respect that kid."

If McKinley is to "renew the legacy" -- a slogan adopted last year to convey the faculty's desire to return McKinley to its place as one of D.C.'s best schools -- it is probably going to be teachers such as Washington, Swain and Williams who will make it happen. "They're good kids," Swain said one day early in the school year. "They are just begging for help. They all want discipline. They all want guidance. It's up to us to do it."

ABOUT THE SERIES

Washington Post reporter Athelia Knight spent nearly all of the 1986-87 school year on assignment at McKinley High School, where school officials allowed her to sit in on classes, attend faculty meetings and interview students and teachers about the problems confronting today's urban high school. McKinley was selected because it is an average D.C. high school, as measured by its scores on standardized tests and by the percentage of its graduates who go on to college.