SAN JOSE, CALIF. -- When students at San Jose High Academy fall way behind their classmates in reading and math, school officials send them home with a computer.

For nine weeks, the students get an Apple IIe complete with printer and software to work and play with as often as they wish. Their families, too, are encouraged to get into the act.

The school hopes to raise achievement and build new enthusiasm for education among the students.

But students such as Nicki Howard, 15, focus on the fun.

Every evening after she's finished her regular homework, Nicki retreats to the bedroom that she shares with her mother and 3-year-old brother. There, she sits absorbed for hours in front of the screen, playing arcade-style games based on math and reading.

"I'm in here almost all night until it's time to go to bed," Nicki said on a recent evening, pointing out that her reading grades have gone up since the computer was placed in her home. "I like them. I want one now."

Her mother, Sandra Howard, was just as enthusiastic. She has used the computer to brush up on her rusty typing skills for a new job.

"It's really great," she said.

San Jose High officials were looking for that sort of response when they began the home computer project last fall with 17 Apples scrounged from classrooms and labs.

"If parents are using it trying to better themselves," project director Cathy Williams said, "... and the family is trying to work as a cohesive unit, starting to help their students in school, that's what will make a difference."

But she also hopes to help bridge the academic gap -- if only briefly -- between students at the high-technology magnet school, which is designed to attract students from all over San Jose Unified School District.

Students from the school's low-income neighborhood in North San Jose often speak little or no English and perform poorly on achievement tests, Williams noted. Many of them may be placed in basic-skills classes while students drawn from more affluent areas are more likely to take accelerated academic classes.

Few youngsters from the neighborhood have computers in their homes, she said, but almost all of the honors students from the Almaden Valley do.

"We think this band is widening all the time between the affluent and the at-risk," Williams said. "What I'm trying to do is narrow that band."