Eastern High School Principal Ralph Neal created a special ninth grade at the Northeast school last September, designed to attract the neighborhood's "best and brightest" students from public, private and parochial schools.

Instead, the program attracted 42 students, most of whose reading and mathematics skills were below their grade level and who were not prepared for a rigorous course of study that included Latin, algebra, Shakespeare and ancient and medieval history -- subjects usually not offered until high school. Eastern, like other city high schools, traditiionally has had only grades 10 through 12.

"We did not get any of the parochial or private school students," Neal said. All the ninth-grade students were from Hobson and Winston middle schools, he explained, "and we found that many of the students did not have the basic skills to handle some of the subjects."

Neal established the ninth grade at Eastern, 17th and East Capitol streets NE, as part of a continuing effort by school officials to keep middle-class students in the public schools after sixth grade.

The city's junior and senior high schools long have been plagued by generally below-average scores on national standardized tests. Middle-class parents who can afford it usually send their children to private or parochial schools for grades 7 through 12.

As part of the effort to attract students, school officials, including Superintendent Floretta D. McKenzie, have approved the "Schools on the Hill" plan to reorganize four Capitol Hill schools dramatically by expanding programs that have attracted middle-class students. Under the program, Stuart Junior High School would close in June and reopen in the fall as the new Hobson Middle School.

Neal said that the announcement of the addition of the special ninth grade came too late and many parents had already made plans for their children to attend other schools.

"We did not get final approval until August . . . ," he said. "But we had made some plans already with Hobson and Winston middle schools."

As a result, many of the teachers who thought that they would be teaching accelerated classes to students well above their grade level had to revise their courses for students whose reading and mathematics were at the elementary school level.

"We certainly did not get the cream of the crop," said Eva Speight, who teaches English literature. "We did not get the students we expected, but we dared not venture from giving these kids a chance to learn the material."

Consequently, Speight said, she and the other teachers had to modify their curricula so as to not to move too fast. Others said that they started to group their classes according to the students' levels of achievement.

"I can't move through the material as fast as I had planned," said Faye Dixon, who teaches ancient and medieval history. "But we have been working very hard, and we are certainly making progress."

"They give evidence that they are underachievers," said Patricia Mitchell, who has taught Latin at Eastern since 1959, "but they are improving every day, and I keep pushing them every chance I get."

Only eight students had mathematics scores that qualified them for algebra, teachers said. The others were placed in a basic math course.

"They needed to score at least at the 70th percentile or the seventh-grade level," said Willard King, a math and physics teacher, "but the average was clearly below that. It was at the fifth-grade level."

Some of the ninth-grade students said they were not aware that they were in what had been billed as an advanced ninth grade, but many said they knew that some of their classes were different from those of ninth graders at other schools.

"We had to adjust when we came here," said one 15-year-old student. "But I don't feel like all my classes are regular ninth-grade classes."

She said that she studies Latin, while her friends in other ninth-grade classes are studying Spanish.

"It's fun being in a high school," said another 15-year-old ninth grader, who said that she likes Eastern, which recently was remodeled. "The classes aren't any harder," she said. But she added that she has not been studying as hard as she could.

The addition of the ninth grade hasn't been the only change instituted by Ralph Neal since he became Eastern's principal in September 1984.

"Before Neal came, I would smell marijuana in the halls. Students, if they came to school, never went to their classes," said Jeanne Lofton, who has taught at Eastern since 1958. "This school was no more of a school than my dog's playground."

Neal changed all that, and Lofton and other teachers said that his visibility around the school, his strict discipline and his personal touch have given Eastern a new image.

"He's restored our pride," one teacher said.

"He's given this school some structure," added another. "He came into a bad situation and turned this place around."

Neal said that the gifted and talented program for ninth graders will continue and that he hopes neighborhood students, in four or five years, will come to Eastern instead of transferring to schools in other areas.

"We are going to continue our program," Speight said. "And what we are going to see, once the word gets out, is a neighborhood community that won't need to go across town or out of the public school system to get a quality educational program.

"Eastern is on the move, and it's just a matter of time before we get bombarded with those middle-class families."