With posters for buses, brochures for real estate agents and special training for school secretaries, the Washington school system is conducting a $34,000 public relations campaign to improve its image attract families who now send their children to private schools or settle in the suburbs.

The effort, labeled "Operation Positive Image," is being financed by grants from the Strong and Meyer Foundations.

"I've had teachers tell me that when they go out of town, they don't even tell people they work for the D.C. school system," said Olive Covington, the system's new public relations director who is heading the campaign. "If they don't feel proud of it, that has to be demoralizing.

"We're not trying to create something that doesn't exist," she said, "cut we are trying to show the good things that are here."

The posters, now being prepared by graphics designer in Boston, feature D.C. school children studying math with calculators, writing short stories, looking at rockets at the Smithsonian Institution and using television cameras in a junior high school.

Altogether there will be 24 posters. Mrs. Covington said, some with considerable text about the programs they depict. She said she hopes to arrange for copies of them to be displayed on Metro buses and subway cars, on street corner trashcans and in laudromats and beauty parlors all over the city.

"We want to send out the message that the D.C. public schools are serving all the people," Mrs. Covington said, "and that the schools have programs that will attract people if they know what is happening."

In addition, the designer, Michael Sand, is preparing a brochure with basic information about the school system and a map and directory of all its schools and programs.

Mrs. Covington said she hopes to print about 30,000 copies on newsprint and distribute them to parents of children currently in public schools and to real estate firms and government agencies that have contact with people moving into the area.

She said she expects all the materials to be ready during the summer.

"We're trying to reach the parents and the would-be parents," Sand explained, "including the people who say the public schools must be rotten because that's all they hear about them."

School Supt. Vincent Reed, said he hopes the public relations campaign "will reach the people who have been turned off by the public schools and have gone into private schools. I hope they come back, and that's one purpose of what we're doing."

"They're taxpayers," he continued. "Why should they have to pay for private schools, too? I hope everybody can adopt and embrace the public schools for their own children."

Reed said he hopes the campaign will also make teachers and students "feel good about the school system." and that this, in turn, will help improve student achievement and discipline.

At present, about 3 per cent of the black school-age children in the city and 53 percent of the whites attend private schools. Blacks now make up 95 per cent of public school enrollment. The number of whites in public schools has been stable for the past four years and the number of blacks in private schools has been increasing substantially.

"We're taking an aggressive stance," Sand said, "to recruit the people who would naturally think of sending their kids elsewhere. That means whites, of course, but there are plenty of blacks in private schools now, too. We want to show everybody that there are worthy things going on in the (public) schools that are not just remedial."

Besides the brochures and posters, the image-building program has included two public relations seminars for principals, run by local PR man Ofield Dukes. About 100 school secretaries and principals attended workshops run by the National School Public Relations Association on how to improve their dealings with students and the public.

The secretaries were included, Mrs. Covington said, because they "hold the image of a school in their hands. They're the gatekeepers. They're the front line."

James Kunen, president of the Meyer Foundation, said his board decided to back the campaign because "morale in the school' system is bad, their image in the community is bad, their image to newcomers is bad, and that's not justified. Not all the schools are bad, not the entire school system.

"Reed (who became superintendent in March, 1976) is trying to turn the image around," Kunen continued. "There's no self-glorification in this for him. I don't see how it will raise children's test scores any, but it can't hurt, and it's not public money."