The student in the back row, dressed entirely in glaring yellow, stood up in midclass and dramatically shouted, "I want to learn!"

"He wants to disrupt," science teacher James Bennett said. The class snickered. The principal ducked his head into the room.

"I want a transfer!" the student shouted. He got one -- to the principal's office. Again the theatrics sent chuckles sweeping through the class.

Downstairs, the boy's counselor sat him down and handed him a sheet of blank paper. The student would have to write about why he was showing off.

At PAUSE, the District school system's new school for disruptive students, incidents like this happen routinely. Students wander in and out of classes, seemingly at will. They taunt teachers, looking for a reaction and, most of the time, getting none.

Tiffs break out. A boy whispers something and a girl shouts at him in response, drawing a glare from a teacher and a satisfied laugh from the boy.

It is enough to drive a teacher batty. But they plug ahead, ignoring the troublemakers, insisting on completing the lesson. They are quick to note that things could be worse.

At a school filled entirely by students who have been nabbed carrying weapons, attacking other children, selling drugs, assaulting teachers or simply disobeying virtually every rule of decent comportment, there have been no violent incidents after nine months of operation.

So far, at least, PAUSE -- an acronym for Providing an Alternative Unique School Environment -- is proving that the worst troublemakers can be made to attend school regularly, pay attention and even learn a few things.

But the school, created by the D.C. school board in the aftermath of a series of high school drug raids in 1986, has had a rough start.

For months, it had no home, as one neighborhood after another protested the potential arrival of a school for tough kids. For a time, as strict new discipline rules appeared to reduce behavior problems citywide, the school board considered scrapping plans to open PAUSE.

"For a long time, PAUSE had nothing but controversy, community unrest and then cold feet," said Andrew Topps III, the school's principal.

But PAUSE finally opened, adding the District to a long list of school systems, from major cities to Fairfax County, that provide separate settings for students who act up in school.

Even now, operating in a long-unused wing of the old Brookland School at 10th and Monroe streets NE, PAUSE has problems.

Plans called for the school to serve 200 students by now. With more than $800,000 invested in the school, only 50 students are enrolled, and more like 35 to 40 actually attend on a typical day. Attendance, Topps said, is sporadic.

And some D.C. principals are reluctant to refer students to PAUSE for fear that administrators will say that they failed with those students.

Despite renovations that created usable classrooms and transformed a boys bathroom into the principal's and counselors' offices, PAUSE still has no library, no science or language labs, no gymnasium, schoolyard, auditorium or cafeteria. Physical education classes are held in a converted storage room equipped only with a stationary bicycle, a weight machine and a mat.

PAUSE moved into a building already housing a school that is its virtual opposite. While PAUSE students are sent there against their will, the D.C. Street Academy is an alternative school for dropouts who come back seeking a diploma.

PAUSE is tucked off in one wing of the building. It is the Street Academy banner that hangs over the main hall. Administrators and students of the two schools say that the two disciplinary styles have provoked uncomfortable conflicts. For example, PAUSE students are not permitted to smoke at school, but they must walk through a vestibule where Street Academy students often gather to smoke.

"It's hard to be strict with a very relaxed program right here," Topps said.

Undaunted by the neighborhood opposition, inadequate facilities and questions about the school's purpose, Topps has recruited an unusually committed staff to teach the discards of the school system.

Offering regular teacher's pay plus a $3,000 hardship bonus, Topps found some gems, recruiting from private schools, Howard University and the Lorton Reformatory school along with the D.C. school system.

They deal with students such as Katrina, a ninth grader who was caught selling cocaine in a junior high school. She came to PAUSE with low test scores, a history of spotty attendance and a habit of defying authority and walking out of school whenever she wished. (The last names of PAUSE students are not being used in this article to prevent possible damage to the reputations of youngsters.)

At PAUSE, Katrina continues to disrupt classes, but she writes poetry and has grown close to some staff members.

"PAUSE is bumpin'," she told Topps, using the latest slang for "first-rate." "I'm not going back to my school." Katrina is expected to stay at PAUSE through the spring.

A 14-year-old from Lincoln Junior High went to PAUSE after instigating a big fight on his first day back from a 10-day suspension -- for fighting. He is a nuisance at PAUSE, wandering into the wrong classes, sitting sullenly, talking as if there were no teacher speaking. But he has not gotten into any fights.

Suspended for beating up a fellow student at his junior high school, Bernard, a 16-year-old ninth grader, said PAUSE is the best school he has been to, even if he does have to take three buses to get there from his Southeast home.

"You can talk to them better here," he said. "In a regular school, you have to have all As or they think you're bad. You build up a reputation in another school and then you're on their bad side whatever you do. The teachers are jon'in' {picking} on you. Not here. Here they help you.

"In my school, I had an attitude, so if I go back, the slightest thing and I'll get in trouble. Here, we have boys who still sell drugs {outside school}, 'cause they're blinded by the money. But they don't act like they used to. They'll get caught a couple of times, they'll stop."

Said Topps: "We are trying to make them viable citizens. Teaching them to manage their tempers, to learn not to resort to weapons. We are trying to give them a sense of purpose."

Topps, a former D.C. police officer, teacher and assistant principal at Anacostia High School, demands extra work -- and gets it.

History teacher Sonny Better asks students to create their own black family symbols, a vehicle that elicits originality from the most reluctant students.

One boy drew a family shield decorated with dollar signs. Another did a detailed drawing of a bridge over roiling, churning, troubled waters, an eloquent portrait of his family life.

Such accomplishments make it possible for Better to make it through classes such as one the other day: While Better lectured to five students on what it was like to live at the turn of the century, two ran out of the room shouting, one appeared to fall asleep, one sat slumped in a chair, and one listened closely, volunteering answers to all questions.

When a student does not show up in the morning, Reginald May, a lawyer who teaches PAUSE's street law class, calls the parent, even visits the home to bring in the student. He is dealing with some students who, between truancy and suspensions, have rarely spent a full week in school. But, May says, once he persuades students that someone actually cares, many of them start showing up.

When a student seems to be tuning out in Yvonne Holt's English class, she takes him or her on a walk around the block to talk about what is happening at home. Then she might sit the student down in her magazine corner, stocked with every publication to which she or any other teacher subscribes.

"These students come in with the attitude that 'I don't know anything and nobody cares,' " Holt said. "They're mad with the world. Well, I consider these students college-bound. I don't want to know what they did to get here. I know they can achieve, and I am nice to them. Niceness begets niceness."

One recent day, when the school lunches did not arrive in time for lunch, Topps and several teachers walked all the students down the block to the luncheonette for steak-and-cheese subs. A number of students had no money; the teachers opened their wallets.

"If you read their records, these are not students you would want to take out," Topps said. "In their regular schools, these students are time bombs. Most of them have been arrested or incarcerated."

But PAUSE students have been on trips to museums, Howard University, Rock Creek Park and Walter Reed Army Medical Center, all without incident.

The key to Topps' method is being gentle.

"These kids have been talked at, they have been physically abused, they know how to press the buttons to get you to yell," he said. "So we just don't do it. We don't give them the satisfaction. We are firm, but we are fair. We listen to their pain and anguish."

Every PAUSE student spends three hours a week in small counseling groups led by a psychologist or social worker. The entire PAUSE staff meets regularly to make study and counseling plans for each student and to decide if the student is ready to return to a regular school.

To be sent to PAUSE, a student must have been suspended from junior or senior high school for 25 days, the system's maximum.

To get in, student and parent must sign an education contract. The parent pledges to monitor the child's homework and attend school meetings. The student agrees to respect the staff, refrain from profanity and attend all classes. The language rule is broken every few minutes, but Topps said it nonetheless sets a tone.

To get out of PAUSE, a student must show the staff that he or she is ready to go back to the old neighborhood, the old friends -- in many cases, the very people who egged on the behavior that got the student suspended.

PAUSE's rules say students ought not stay at the school for more than two semesters.

"They are afraid to go back to their old ways," said Kay Massey, a PAUSE counselor. "But they have to go back. We need the space. And in a protective environment, you're not being tested."

There is some fear that bearing up to such pressure is too much to expect from any teen-ager, let alone one with a history of disruptive behavior. And some students have managed to string out their stay at PAUSE beyond when the staff wanted them to move on.

One student went so far this fall as to sabotage her return to regular school by not showing up for a return interview with her former principal. She got an extra semester at PAUSE.

Only three students have gone back to their former schools so far. One, Gregory, a basketball player at Dunbar High School, is PAUSE's proudest achievement to date. His grades are up, he stays in close touch with the PAUSE staff, and he is happy to be back among friends.

With such a small track record, it is too early to judge PAUSE, said school board President Linda Cropp (Ward 4). Other board members worry that the program may have been too ambitious.

Indeed, the academic program has fallen short of its goal, offering far less than a normal secondary school. Instead of six distinct grades, classes are divided only vaguely into two levels: junior high and senior high. And teachers can hardly follow through on a series of lessons with a constantly changing student body.

But the bottom line for someone like Bennett, the science teacher, is a discovery that he and other PAUSE teachers have made.

"These kids can think," he said. "These kids can analyze. They want to learn. I give assignments and they come through. Eventually we are going to have academic competition here. That's unheard of in the regular schools."

At the end of a last-period class last week, Bennett gave his five students 10 minutes to complete a pop quiz on science vocabulary.

"It can be hair-raising here, but I've seen changes in attitudes," the teacher said. "One kid asked me yesterday if he was stupid. That really ticked me off. We had a long talk."

As Bennett talked, two students walked out. At 3 p.m., with school officially over, two more jumped up and ran out.

But one boy remained, carefully completing his work. At 3:15, he handed in his paper. Bennett thanked him.

"You have the street thing, the go-gos, drugs, designer jeans, TV, movies, people getting shot -- it's all out there, pulling them away from us," Bennett said. "And then they're supposed to leave that outside and come in and learn. The amazing thing is that some of them manage to come in and achieve."