For two weeks this summer, Thomas Harper forsook his regular duties as principal of Dunbar High School to talk to engineers and inspect sites where workers from the Potomac Electric Power Co. were installing overhead and underground cables.

The Pepco orientation will come in handy for Harper this fall as Dunbar High School becomes home for the D.C. Public Schools' pre-engineering program. It is one of five new career programs that will offer an estimated 500 students an intense academic curriculum as well as technical training in a specific field.

The programs are the result of partnerships between the school system and at least 16 businesses, which serve as sponsors. Creation of the partnerships has been pursued by Superintendent Floretta McKenzie almost since the day of her appointment more than a year ago. The school system is relying heavily on the businesses for technical as well as financial support for the programs.

"We have not budgeted any school money for the program," said Thomas Herrmann, special assistant to the associate superintendent for corporate relations. "We paid summer school salaries for the teachers who were on internships. We're making do with what we have and with help from the companies."

In addition to the pre-engineering program, in which students will spend hours in a computer lab, there will be a business and finance program at Woodson Senior High School; a communications program at McKinley Senior High School and the Penn Center, where students will produce films in an in-house TV studio; a health careers program at Eastern Senior High School and M. M. Washington Career Center, where students will study such courses as microbiology and taxonomy; and a hotel management and culinary arts program at Roosevelt Senior High School and Burdick Career Center, a program that will send students to the Capitol Hilton and the Howard Inn for on-the-job experience.

"Highly skilled human capital is at a premium and will become more so," McKenzie wrote last May when proposing the programs to area businesses. "This is an opportunity to make our youth competitive in today's economic marketplace and to increase their post-secondary options while cutting a company's costs for recruitment, hiring, training, turnover and development."

A number of companies immediately joined the programs. Their representatives joined teachers and administrators this summer in developing curriculums. Harper and several other administrators took internships with the companies to study the skills necessary for the careers that students from their schools will be entering.

"I got a better feel for what people in the power business do on a day-to-day basis," Harper said. "It will indeed give me a better background to explain to our young people what kind of skills they will need."

An instructor from the culinary arts program spent eight weeks at the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, N.Y., while two pre-engineering teachers worked at the General Moters Corp. headquarters in Flint, Mich. Lodging and transportation expenses for the teachers were paid by foundation grants, industry donations or the companies, Herrmann said.

Advisory boards, composed of companies' representatives, were set up for each career program. Administrators from the Houston Independent School District, from which the District borrowed most of its program structure, flew here frequently to offer advice.

Herrmann said the District looked at career programs in several cities, but administrators that agreed Houston, which has 65 career programs, seemed to have the best.

"The pre-engineering program at Dunbar was taken almost verbatim from Houston," he said.

Houston operates its career programs as "magnet" schools, set up to draw a variety of ethnic groups and thereby integrate the school system.

"The programs have worked very effectively as desegration tools," said Larry Marshall, Houston's deputy superintendent in general instructional services. "What is fully unique about Washington is you are creating a program solely to enrich and enhance educational opportunities . . . ."

"We have found that these programs raise the aspirational and achievement level of students," he said. "Before the programs, we were not producing black students who could successful compete for college scholarships."

As evidence of a change, Marshall said, "Last year, Houston had 29 semifinalists in tests given by the the National Merit Scholarship Association. Except for one or two students, they all came from the career program. Of about 275 graduates of the engineering program, all of them have gone to college and 90 percent of them have been minorities.

"It has made a major difference within the community. We have had corporate support that has been unprecedented. I predict that in four years Washington, D.C., will probably have the best career program in the country. Dunbar, particularly, will be excellent."

Marshall said he was impressed with Harper's leadership at the school and rated the facility itself as "superb and awesome."

The District's programs, except communications, will begin with ninth graders this year. Communications will accept students in 10th through 12th grades. Acceptance in a program is determined by a variety of factors, including academic standing and a student's interest and goals.

In the career programs, students generally will be required to take more math and science than students in regular curriculums. Students in the health careers program also must take Latin.

Students in the pre-engineering program are expected to attend college. "Those who decide not to continue, we feel they will still get a head start in the job market because they will have a great deal of computer and general science background," said Carol McCall, a media relations representative at Pepco.

Most sponsors agreed the career programs will be beneficial to both the community and the students, regardless of whether the students go on to college.

"Blacks are under-represented in the allied health fields because they don't know about these professions," said Harry Douglas, dean of the College of Allied Health Sciences at Howard University. "This career program will expose students to the full array of health occupations."

Because of the programs' special demands, career students will attend school for two additional hours. Classes will run from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m., while regular students will attend from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m.

The probability for some success already is built into the program. Sponsoring companies are expected to provide internships, summer jobs, entry-level positions and scholarships for students.

"Washington has the unique opportunity to blow a lot of myths that exist as to whether or not a predominantly black school system can have a quality program," Marshall said. "I see Dunbar blowing any myth right off the surface."