One week before school opens, principals and teachers in District of Columbia public schools are frantically seeking students to enroll in five new career high school programs, which are scheduled to begin Sept. 7 with or without students.

The programs have been set up to allow students to take classes that groom them for specific careers in hotel management, engineering, communications, health care or business and finance -- while they continue to study traditional academic subjects.

School officials said yesterday that about half of the 460 career program positions remain unfilled, a combination of slow recruitment efforts and lack of response. High school students throughout the city are potential candidates to attend the programs, regardless of where they live.

These career program opportunities have been established with the help of a number of private corporations and business associations and mark superintendent Floretta D. McKenzie's most ambitious effort thus far to create what she calls "public-private partnerships" to aid the city's schools.

Only one of the five high schools slated to house such a program -- Dunbar, at First and N streets NW -- has all of its openings filled. Dunbar will be the site of the engineering program.

Teachers and counselors at the four other high schools -- Eastern, McKinley, Roosevelt and H.D. Woodson -- are combing recreation centers, churches and other neighborhood spots where youngsters are likely to congregate in the summer, looking for students they might interest in the career programs.

"The problem is kids are really no one place in the summer. We don't know where they are," said Thomas F. Herrmann, the school system's special assistant for corporate affairs. "I'm sure that when school opens and the kids are in place, we'll get a rush of kids interested in the career schools," he added.

Herrmann predicted that all of the career students would be recruited and in their classes by the end of September.

McKenzie was traveling yesterday and could not be reached for comment. But Associate Superintendent James T. Guines said that school officials have been slow to recruit for the programs because school officials were busy writing the curriculum for the career courses and getting teachers trained to teach these courses.

By the time this was done, Guines said, school was long since out. School officials then posted brochures and flyers in libraries, recreation centers, mini-employment centers and Hispanic agencies across the city over the summer, informing students how to go about applying for a seat in one of the career schools. Nonetheless, Guines said, the response to that generally has not been great.

When officials at Eastern High School, 17th and East Capitol streets NE, held a meeting last week to discuss its career program in health professions, only three students and two parents showed up, Guines said.

Dunbar's engineering program, which will offer a heavy concentration of courses in math and science to benefit students who want to pursue engineering majors in college, has drawn the greatest response: about 200 students applied for 50 positions.

But that response apparently was due to the individual efforts of Dunbar principal Thomas Harper, who traveled to junior high schools over the summer, getting names of prospective students from counselors and then contacting the students to see if they were interested.

All of the career programs will start at the ninth grade, except for the communications program in photo-journalism, graphic arts and advertising at McKinley High School, 2nd and T streets NE, which will be for 10th and 11th graders.

School board member R. Calvin Lockridge (Ward 8) yesterday criticized McKenzie's handling of the career programs, saying she has pushed them through without approval from the board. "As far as I'm concerned, the career schools are not in existence, they're still a thought in her mind," Lockridge said.

However Board member Linda W. Cropp (Ward 4) said McKenzie did not need Board approval to launch the programs. Cropp said that the Board's committee on educational programs would discuss the status of the career schools at a meeting this afternoon.

In addition to those at Dunbar, McKinley, and Eastern, the other programs are hotel management and hospitality at Roosevelt High School, 13th and Upshur streets NW, and business and finance at H.D. Woodson High School, 55th and Eads streets NE.