Two years ago, nothing really made sense to 15-year-old Taysir Alsharki. She had crossed half a world to get from North Yemen to Alexandria, but the city's streets seemed a maze and she often found herself lost among the towers of nearby Crystal City. English was gibberish to her, and even the most mundane tasks were intimidating.

She recalls the laughter of the students from Francis C. Hammond Junior High School as they made fun of her for being unable to ask for a seat on the bus on her first day of school. Otherwise, her classmates seemed uninterested in the dark-haired newcomer.

Alsharki turned inward, to her writing. "When you write," she said, "the paper, it listens to you." She found a friend in her English teacher, whose office became a refuge. "I would just sit in her office," she said. "We couldn't speak, but she was so nice."

Two years later, the talkative girl with the fluffy hair is fluent in English and is known as T.C. Williams High School's diplomat, often called upon to help a new foreign student feel at home.

Her story illustrates how dedicated individuals in an overburdened bureaucracy have helped foreign students adjust. Also, it illustrates the challenge that confronts scores of Washington area schools as they attempt to educate thousands of recently arrived immigrant children.

Their needs, the schools have learned, often go far beyond any conventional notion of education. Educators are being called upon to be guardian angels -- guiding children and their parents through a new culture, a strange bureaucracy; helping families meet basic food, clothing and hygiene needs. For some parents, their children's presence in the schools is the most substantial continuing contact with the broader U.S. society.

All government services in the metropolitan area have felt the impact of the new immigrants. But few have felt it so quickly and so intensely as have the schools.

According to a recent Washington Post survey, there are at least 30,000 Asian and 20,000 Hispanic students enrolled in Washington area schools. Two-thirds of them arrived in the area in the past six years. About 21,500 foreign students from a wide range of countries are enrolled in special English as a Second Language classes. Enrollment overall in the schools is about 510,000.

Twelve schools in the area have estimated enrollments that are more than half foreign born, compared with no such schools a decade ago.

A small army of about 870 teachers, aides and administrators has grown up to take on the task of helping foreign students in the District and Alexandria, and Arlington, Fairfax, Montgomery and Prince George's counties. Most of the effort, at an estimated cost of $21 million of local, state and federal money, is spent on teaching English.

Immigrant students are a tiny but growing minority in Howard, Loudoun, Prince William and Anne Arundel counties, school officials said. But even these areas have arranged for special intensified English classes, the common element in all school districts.Basic Tasks, Basic Needs

The Washington area always has hosted foreign students. Fifteen years ago, before the first large influx from postwar Indochina, these students were the children of well-educated, U.S.-allied diplomats and business executives. The public perception was that of the overachiever, outscoring Americans on math and science tests.

While some students such as Alsharki come from relatively prosperous families, and plenty of immigrant students are performing well, thousands of others, the children of farmers and fishermen and factory workers, have had their adjustment problems compounded by poverty and the traumas of war and dislocation in their homelands.

Educators note that it is difficult to determine which students will excel or need long-term help because most of them must first learn the language. Until they do, this basic task obscures their potential.

Also, some are trying to adjust to life separated from their parents. There are schools that keep on hand not only free textbooks for these students, but also free used clothes and canned goods, and there are classrooms in which basic English is mixed with basic hygiene.

At Langley Park-McCormick Elementary School in Prince George's County, where 65 percent of the students are recent immigrants, a cluttered closet of donated clothes and a shopping cart of canned goods in the hallway attest to the changes.

At H.D. Cooke Elementary School in the District, Principal Josephine Teague is assisted by a team of Howard University medical school interns who conduct personal hygiene workshops and by a Georgetown University program that sends a group of foreign youngsters with a fair grasp of English to tutor younger foreign students.

The new mission of the schools includes teaching parents, as well. An estimated 21,000 foreign-born adults are enrolled in adult education. Schoolteachers and social workers visit homes to reach parents, to help them with such everyday skills as reading a telephone bill, making a doctor's appointment, dialing 911.

While educators, parents and community activists say the schools are doing a good job of providing basic education, they recognize the inadequacy of the special auxiliary services that many say will be needed to help these children succeed.

In the six school districts surveyed by The Washington Post, there are only four full-time instructors for foreign students with learning disabilities and another eight people who can evaluate foreign students' possible needs for special programs. There are only six social workers, 18 counselors and five psychologists who work full time with foreign students.

"The total school community, the social services community, has to be on hand to deal with the new population," said Esther Eisenhower, director of the Fairfax schools' foreign student programs. "They live here, work here, pay taxes here, and they're entitled to our services."

To enroll in public schools, students need to prove only that they live in the jurisdiction. They are not required to prove that they are here legally. Each school system has a foreign student intake center, the child's first introduction to the schools. There the staffs evaluate academic skills, examine medical records and pick over life stories for clues to a new student's particular needs. Cultural Crossroads

At the Montgomery school intake center in Rockville, director Alberto Reluzco was a busy man at the beginning of the school year. Like other intake offices, his could have been in an international airport terminal, the busy way station between cultures, with signs and instruction manuals in six languages.

During one morning, an excited Indonesian girl waited in the foyer with her sister to be interviewed; two shy Nigerian boys waited with their mother in a side office. Two Afghan children took a test on computers, and the Brazilian Embassy was trying to get Reluzco on the telephone.

A recent two-day visit to the foreign student counselor's office and classrooms at T.C. Williams offered a glimpse at the sense of adventure, confusion and hard work that make up a foreign student's school day.

Two Hispanic 11th-grade youths volunteered to be 10th graders again so they could take driver's education. In one English class, students from Asia, Central America and the Middle East talked eagerly about why they go to class.

For Rahmatullah Areef, a 17-year-old from Afghanistan, "learning letters" would help him in his mission as a "freedom fighter," he said, proudly showing off the slogans on his T-shirt. A Hispanic girl said she wants to understand customers at the fast-food restaurant where she works. All agreed with the assessment of one Salvadoran: "If you don't speak English, you can't live here."

Peruvian Susana Zambrano described what has struck her as odd, that students talk back to teachers. "We have respect for older people," she said. "Not here . . . . Here there is too much liberty."

The great mixture of nationalities and their dispersal throughout the Washington area have inhibited groups in efforts to organize effectively and make demands on the school system. Unlike Los Angeles, for example, where Spanish-English bilingualism has been a polarizing political issue for years, the approach here has been to teach children English and to get them into the mainstream as quickly as possible.

"We couldn't begin to offer bilingualism here," said Montgomery school board member Sharon DiFonzo. "Whose language should we use? Would we use Urdu? Japanese? Swahili? Spanish? Which one of the 10 dialects coming out of Iran?"

Courses in English as a Second Language are at the core of the foreign students' curriculums. Depending on their language ability, students spend one to four hours a day in intensive English. Then they go to social studies, history, science and math courses designed for limited English speakers.

As their English improves, they reduce the number of hours in English as a Second Language courses and attend more classes with American students.

Foreign elementary school children are likely to spend more time with their American counterparts than are older students because they learn English more quickly and all subjects are taught in one class, school officials say. In secondary schools, physical education is often the only period in a day when new foreign students spend time with Americans.

Teachers and students said that younger pupils, and those with a good command of English, are the most likely to cross cultural barriers. For others, integrating with the student population can be a long and daunting process.

Some foreign students talk of feeling isolated at school, a feeling reinforced by their lives outside of school.

Taysir Alsharki spends most of her free time alone. Her sister and brother, with whom she lives, work and go to college. She seldom sees them, and she does not want to burden them with her woes, she said.

"I worry a lot. When I go home, nobody's home. I don't have a lot of things to do," she said. "When my mom was around {in Yemen}, when you go back home, there's someone to ask you, 'How was your day?'

"In Yemen, it's okay to go to your neighbor's house and spend all day. Here, my neighbor, he just says 'hi, bye.' "

She likes to be around young children and once tried to become a baby sitter. But the reception she got after answering an ad on a bulletin board was discouraging. "I said I was from Yemen and I speak Arabic. She {the prospective employer} was talking about Libya then. She said, 'What is Gadhafi to you?' Can you believe that?"

Her first American friend was David, a boy she met in the Hammond Junior High cafeteria. "I was sitting alone when he came over. I said, 'Sorry, no English.' He said, 'That's okay . . . . I just want to be your friend.' Every day he would come and talk and he'd say, 'Why don't you try to say something?' "

Slowly Alsharki gained courage and a larger English vocabulary. While she had taken on the role of a witty advocate for new foreign students, the seemingly cocky attitude of her American high school peers continued to intimidate her.

Alsharki did not say a word for four months in her family life class at T.C. Williams, where she was the only foreigner. "I never talked because I felt they would laugh at me," she said. But by the end of the year, she had an announcement for all of the students.

"I said, 'I just want to tell you, thank you for the way you behaved,' " Alsharki recalled. "I feel really comfortable in this room. Thank you for not making me talk or laughing at me."

American students agree that foreign students are not well integrated in the schools. "There's not much interaction," said Kim Wade, 16, a 1987 T.C. Williams graduate who shared a social studies class with a few Hispanic students. She said the stories and political perspectives they shared during class were memorable. However, they shared little outside of class.

"It was nothing like a cross-cultural experience, but more like a history lesson . . . . People respected them and their opinions."

"I think they're kind of scared of us," said Natasha Veillard, 15. "They don't fit in. They don't wear the same clothes; you don't talk to them often; they don't know how you think."

"Human nature being what it is, we just can't force them to mix," said counselor Midge Glennon. "I think it happens with all races and all groups."

Immigrant parents, educators said, are even more cut off from the American way of life. In general, it takes them longer to learn English. And many, unlike their children, do not have the daily contact with Americans to speed the process. Educators insist that the parents' participation in their children's education is crucial, and to this end the schools have developed a new realm of programs aimed at helping parents adapt.

The first step is to help meet impoverished families' basic needs, and, in some cases, to teach parents fundamentals such as reading and writing. The schools have enlisted English-speaking immigrants, county and city health care and social workers, school staff members and community volunteers to assist.

"We set up a class using Monopoly money to teach them to use bank tellers," said Gwen Coffield, who heads adult education at Rosemary Hills Community School in Silver Spring. "We teach them how to use checks. They need to get information about airlines and hospitals. We teach them to use 911."

At the Spanish Education Development Center, a community-based nonprofit preschool in Adams-Morgan, graduation day is a festive, elaborate affair that highlights the achievements of its Hispanic students and the urgency of parental involvement.

For three years, the Arlington schools have written and translated into Spanish, Vietnamese, Khmer and Laotian pamphlets to explain aspects of the children's school experience. The pamphlets include subjects such as how to read a report card, how to use a telephone and the rules of school discipline and attendance.

The parents are "totally at a loss," said Carol Chen, who works with the Montgomery County schools' foreign parents. "It's the little things, like snow days, early dismissals . . . , permission slips for field trips, that create a real problem for these parents."

In a musty apartment set aside as a recreation area in an Arlington tenement, teacher Laurie Baker holds weekly workshops for about 20 Cambodian parents. With the help of a nurse and two Cambodian social workers who act as translators, she tries to teach basic nutrition and health care to the parents, most of whom are illiterate and had been peasants. Her goal is to make them understand the importance of helping their children with simple developmental skills, such as identifying colors.

"We're expecting them to provide experiences to their kids that are not in their experience," Baker said. Most of the parents Baker teaches do not understand what their children are learning, said social workers, and many are afraid to visit schools. Many, having lived under autocratic regimes, are fearful of government-run institutions -- a problem for all the branches of local government in the area, especially the police. With such apprehensions, the gap between them and their children grows.

During one of nurse Baker's classes, a wrinkled old Cambodian man expressed awe at the world the schools were opening for his grandchildren. "The children know everything from school, and we don't go to school," he said through a translator. The Challenge

As the schools gear up for the increasing number of immigrants, teachers and administrators who deal directly with these students say they are just beginning to appreciate the true dimensions of their new role.

On one particular day this fall, for example, T.C. Williams teacher Alba Ben-Barka, who teaches English to foreign students, burst into counselor Glennon's office looking frazzled, having just concluded another bout with a student over her rule against gum chewing. "It's not chewing gum, it's a bigger issue. I'm trying to change their image," said Ben-Barka, a native of Italy for whom gum chewing conjures the image of tacky people in dead-end jobs, a survival level existence, as she described it.

"I feel silly. Chewing gum should not be a big issue, but in some ways I'm like their mother," she said, slumped in a chair, her head in her hands.

"A lot of them aren't aware of what's going on. They don't know what their place is in school, in society. Yes, they come to school to learn, and, yes, they want to learn," but they also come to be socialized.

"It goes back to being one of the in groups, to being an American," she said later. "One of the hardest things for us is not only to teach them English, but to go beyond that, to take our glasses off and put them on the students. It is important for them in order to succeed in society."

Next: The workers: starting at the bottom

Staff writer Carlos Sanchez contributed to this report.