If Arlington's high schools are any indication, America's future is in good, foreign-born hands.

Minh Le, a senior at Washington-Lee High School and a native of Vietnam, has been president of her class each year since she was a freshman.

Her sister, Trang Le, is president of the sophomore class. The vice president, secretary and two of the senators in Trang's class are Vietnamese born.

Sourigna Sananikone, a 17-year-old Laotian who came to Arlington in 1975, is one of the school's star tennis and soccer players.

He is at the top of his senior class, along with Kate Hwa, who came from Taiwan in 1978, and Ngoc-hien Phan and Hao Phan, both of whom are from Vietnam.

At Wakefield High School, Laotian-born Anoulone Viphonsanarath, 17, was one of two students who last year helped school officials select a new principal.

"You feel honored being with them, asking them questions, being able to intimidate people older than you," said Viphonsanarath of her role on the selection committee, on which she questioned applicants about their ideas for helping foreign students.

The candidate selected, she said, had the most ambitious plans and the most experience in dealing with foreign students.

Also, Viphonsanarath is a member of the National Honor Society, the French Honor Society, the Future Business Leaders of America and the Key Club, a student service organization.

She is president of the Laotian students club and is a member of the school's science and literary magazine clubs, and she is on the varsity tennis team.

Also, she has an A-plus average.

Viphonsanarath is typically American in her deck shoes and white socks with pink hearts.

She wears a high school class ring and paints her fingernails pink, to match her fashionable sweat shirt.

Also, Viphonsanarath is typical of successful foreign students.

She arrived here speaking little English. She has experienced a regional war, and she has not been spoiled by affluence.

Like others, Viphonsanarath has been motivated by her family's wishes that she do well in school, she said.

She is highly competitive and believes that her school work reflects not only on herself, but also her family and her culture.

"Basically, it's up to the parents. If they want their kids to be successful, they'll do anything," she said.

Her father, a graduate of Howard University and once the mayor of the Laotian capital of Vientiane, was kidnaped by soldiers when he returned to Laos in 1980 to move his family to the United States. He never returned.

"I owe it {to my parents} that I am growing up in this land," she said.

Among the hundreds of success stories in Washington area schools are spelling bee champions, prize-winning musicians, star athletes, valedictorians, brillant novice scientists and charismatic student leaders.

Educators who have tried to find the answer to why some immigrant students do poorly often have looked to those who have succeeded for hints.

They discount popular notions of innate ability among certain ethnic groups, and they see personality and economic background as major factors.

Most important, they say, may be the influence of family and culture.

As a group, Asian students generally outperform other cultural groups on standardized tests, according to educators.

This is especially true in the areas of science and math, in which, they said, language deficiencies are minimized.

Teachers and counselors of foreign students said that a contributing factor in Asian students' success is a culture that reveres education.

"The main reason is motivation. Many {Asians} have role models," said Maybelle Marckwardt, a teacher specialist in the Montgomery foreign student program.

" . . . If you don't think education is important in your first world, you probably won't in your second world."

Carlos Garcia and Luis Catacora, outstanding students at Montgomery Blair High School, agreed.

"Maybe my family taught me I had to do well in school," said Catacora, 16, a Bolivian and the editor of the school's Silver International student newspaper.

"It has to do with friends, and how your parents support you," said Garcia, 16, who came from Honduras in 1985.

"I remember a day in junior high when I was watching a movie. I saw this guy who was doing well in his life. I said to myself, 'I want to be like that.' "

Besides the science and rifle clubs Garcia joined, he is part of a growing number of foreign students who participate in high school sports.

This year he played third base on the varsity baseball team. "I'd like to be a ballplayer," he said. -- Dana Priest