Hundreds of the District's brightest and poorest elementary and junior high school students have dramatically improved their reading and mathematics skills by giving more than two nights a week and their summer to a young super-charged team of volunteer teachers and tutors determined to challenge questioning young minds.

The project has been so successful that last month both Mayor Marion Barry and Del. Walter Fauntroy nominated the Higher Achievement Program (HAP) for the 1982 President's Volunteer Action Award.

Started in 1975 at Gonzaga High School, HAP is an accelerated academic program for students from low-income District neighborhoods who have demonstrated scholastic ability in special testing. The privately sponsored program has concentrated its efforts in inner-city Northwest neighborhoods where some of the city's poorest and academically weakest schools are located.

"Although we receive applications from all over the city involving rich kids in upper-income surroundings, we reject them to reach the talented poor who really need us," said Greg Gannon, one of HAP's codirectors.

HAP operates out of five centers, all at Catholic facilities that are staffed four nights a week by professional teachers and tutors. The instructors, a racially mixed group, are mothers and fathers, college students, members of the Jesuit Volunteer Corps and part-time high school teachers.

The junior high centers are located at Gonzaga High School at 19 I St. NW and Ss. Paul and Augustine church and school at 1421 V St. NW. The fifth- and sixth-grade centers are at the Immaculate Conception School at 711 N St. NW, the Notre Dame Academy at North Capitol and K streets NW and the Sacred Heart School at 1625 Park Rd. NW.

Of the nearly 500 students enrolled in the program, 70 percent are from the D.C. public school system. A public schools administrator sits on HAP's board of directors. In a letter last month to the program's directors, Schools Superintendent Floretta McKenzie warmly endorsed the project, singling out the positive results of its driving, go-for-broke teaching methods:

"I want to thank you for your efforts on behalf of our community and particularly our D.C. public school students," McKenzie wrote. Her letter went on to say, "I am particularly impressed with the academic results that you are able to produce and the low cost of operating the program. Your records of test improvement scores are truly outstanding."

By testing students before they enter the program and continuing to test them at regular intervals, HAP's directors have been able to demonstrate startling, better-than-hoped-for progress.

Among HAP seventh graders in 1981, for instance, the annual rate of improvement in standardized reading and mathematics test scores was twice the national average and 10 times the average for all D.C. seventh graders.

After two years in the program, HAP eighth graders were more than a year ahead of the national improvement rate and two years ahead of the D.C. improvement rate for their grade level.

HAP junior high school students as a whole leaped ahead three months in reading, seven months in mathematics and two months in vocabulary skills during just seven weeks of HAP's summer session last year. HAP fifth and sixth graders progressed two months in reading, five months in vocabulary and one year in math during the same period.

For admission to HAP, students must score no more than two grade levels below their current grades. But the average score of a HAP applicant is remarkably high. "Most of our students test above D.C. (public school) norms and a little below national norms. In fact, their math scores were higher than the national avearage," said Gannon.

HAP students come from schools such as Shaw and Terrell junior highs, where 60 percent of the enrollment is poor enough to qualify for free lunches under the federal Title One program and where reading and math test scores average far below those at other city schools.

Sam Parker is a volunteer tutor at HAP's Sacred Heart School location, where his daughter, Lee, 11, attends classes Monday and Wednesday nights. He says students who have the ability and desire to learn more should be "rescued" and given the chance to do so. "Otherwise, they become lost and stifled by an academic program that doesn't keep pace with their abilities," he said.

"We're all over them academically," said teacher and HAP codirector Joe Dempsey. "We challenge them, challenge them, challenge them, because that's what they want--and then we all go out and play basketball or volleyball, or we take a special trip and go mountain climbing."

Anapa Nophlin, a sixth grader at Bancroft Elementary who attends evening sessions at Sacred Heart, summed up her feelings about participating in the program: "HAP makes my life easier. I take all of this learning back to my daytime classroom, where I put it to use."

John Kenney, an eighth grader at Lincoln Junior High and the winner of a special HAP award for scholarship, spirit and perfect attendance, was equally serious: "I'm here to learn because times are hard and I want to be prepared. If I was on the streets, I'd be doing foolish things and listening to a lot of garbage. Here, they don't allow that."

Nophlin and Kenney are in HAP's winter session, which is a free follow-up program to the summer school. HAP's summer tuition is $40 per student, but Dempsey said the cost of the program is actually $200 per student.

"No student who is accepted and can't pay the tuition is turned down. We'll find the money somehow," said Jim Kemple, HAP's third codirector. HAP depends on donations from foundations and individuals and fund-raising activities to pay its operating costs.

The summer session is HAP's prize. Scores of applicants must be turned down because the program cannot accommodate more than 500 students.

"Can you believe it--these students are actually clamoring to get into summer school!" said a beaming Dempsey.

From June through August, HAP classes meet five days a week in four 50-minute academic periods with afternoon breaks for intramural sports, arts and crafts and recreational activities. The junior high students and fifth and sixth graders also take part in Saturday enrichment activities such as roller-skating parties, hiking and mountain climbing.

The summer experience is designed to build confidence and positive attitudes, said Kemple. "The students are well-motivated and very receptive to our techniques," he said.

Kemple, Gannon and Dempsey, all part-time teachers at Gonzaga, pitch in with student tutors from Georgetown University, public school teachers, parents and community workers to achieve an ideal 10-to-one ratio of students to teacher in both the summer and winter programs. In some centers this year, the ratio is five to one.

"This is key," said Kemple. "We're able to give the students individual attention."

George Murray, a Lincoln Junior High eighth grader who took part in HAP's summer program, concurs: "HAP gives you more responsibility and self-independence. This helps you mature."

HAP directors have plans to expand the program and its scope of operation. "We want to get into Anacostia," said Dempsey. But the current operating budget of $260,000 is not enough to allow HAP to branch out. A fund-raising raffle is going on now, with HAP-inspired students canvassing the city laden with books of tickets.

"We're caught in a Catch-22 situation regarding money," said Dempsey. "When we go the private sector we're told that all our operations are located on Catholic Church property, so go to the church for money. When we go to the church, we're told that 70 percent of our students are from public schools, so go to the city and federal government for money. HAP hangs there, right in the middle."

Dempsey said Catholic facilities, which HAP uses free of charge, are used only for convenience. "I call up a priest and ask for the use of his church, and he says, 'Fine, come get the keys,' but the public schools involve red tape with clearance, security and the presence of a boiler person on the premises at all times."