ELLICOTT CITY, MD. -- Howard County has the lowest dropout rate in Maryland and more than two-thirds of the graduates continue their education. Nonetheless, when school opens Wednesday, officials will launch a joint program with local businesses to lure the "high risk" students into getting their diplomas.

The Partnership with Business program will involve local corporations through job programs, workshops and tutoring in an effort to keep potential dropouts in school, said Superintendent Michael Hickey. It is designed to provide those students with "a vision of the future," he said.

Paula Scharff, the program's director, said, "Everyone who drops out of school drops out of life. We want to get them on the road to a career."

Sixty students from Hammond and Howard high schools will have the opportunity to participate in the program, in which the local firms will offer the students jobs after school and during the summer that could lead to careers with those companies.

School officials said there is no set criteria for determining which students are "at risk." However, they said they generally look for students who need extra attention, those who have testing or truancy problems, or those who show a severe drop in grades.

Pointing to the school system's reputation for having the highest percentage of students passing the Maryland Functional Math and Reading tests and traditionally surpassing average Scholastic Achievement Test scores, Hickey said Howard County "gets accused of doing a lot for the gifted and talented -- the college-bound -- and not enough for the high-risk kids." The new program is an effort to help students who sometimes fall into the cracks, he said.

"We have the lowest dropout rate in the state. But even if you lose one, it's a loss to himself and to society," Hickey said.

School officials anticipate an enrollment of 26,400 this year, an increase of 1,300.

The county's population explosion is probably the single biggest issue facing the area today and is taking a toll on the school system. Howard County is experiencing such an increase in student population, Hickey said, that "we can't build buildings fast enough."

The boom was marked this year with an almost 10 percent jump in elementary school enrollment and steady increases at the middle and high school levels. The increase has PTA leaders concerned about how to accommodate the heavy influx. Sandra French, president of the county's PTA Council, is worried that quality will suffer if students are just "squeezed in."

Howard County high school classes currently average 23 students, with the elementary and middle schools averaging a slightly lower number, Hickey said. "There are a few exceptions. The largest we allow is 29," he added.

The school board has allocated $38 million for new construction, which includes funds for an elementary school scheduled to open in the fall of 1988 and a middle school to open the following year. Also planned are additions to many school buildings.

Among other programs to be highlighted in the school system this year is a special effort to combat black student underachievement. Blacks make up 13 percent of the total student population in the county, but account for a disproportionately high number of suspensions and have the lowest mean scores on standardized tests, said Gloria Washington, who coordinates a new program on black student achievement. "Many black students are doing extremely well, but by and large blacks are not achieving to the level of their potential," she said.

Last year Hickey appointed a task force to study the causes of black underachievement and coordinate a system of strategies to deal with the problem. The task force is expected to issue a report this fall detailing a five-year plan.

In the meantime, Washington is focusing her efforts on workshops aimed at building a sense of self-awareness and black culture in students and parents, she said.

"There is so much peer pressure against achieving for blacks," Hickey said. "We want to get to a point where achievement is natural."

Also this fall, the school system will release a report that has been two years in the making that examines the current state of county schools and plots a course for the next generation.

"Howard County is at a critical juncture in its history," Hickey said. "Besides the fact that we're approaching the 21st century, we have this growth spurt and a population that's diverse. We have to take initiative and assess where we're going, rather than respond to the changes."