A casual stroll through the hallways of Suitland High School reveals the first hints of the new school philosophy. Posters and brochures bear the theme, "Welcome To The Suitland Complex . . . The School of the 21st Century is Here Today." At Suitland, the words represent more than just a catchy slogan -- they reflect the new philosophy of a school many believe may be a model for high schools of the future.

The focus of this enthusiastic attention has been the institution of the Suitland's two new magnet programs, which were introduced at the beginning of this 1987-88 school year. The programs, the School of Visual and Performing Arts and the University High School Center, have each been awaited with a great deal of anticipation by parents, students and administrators in Prince George's County.

The selection of Suitland as the school to host these programs was a logical one for several reasons, not the least of which were its centralized location within the county and its very even racial mix among students. The four-building "campus" also affords a "collegiate" setting that provides the ideal learning environment for the magnet programs.

"I think the idea was to incorporate our facilities to satisfy the needs of all students while taking advantage of the campus setting," said Principal Joseph Hairston. "In terms of size, location and comfort, Suitland is the ideal location for the programs. It houses all the resources needed in one place."

These new programs, in addition to the existing comprehensive curriculum and the five-year-old Vocational-Technical program (an unofficial "magnet" program that attracts students from five area schools and offers training in 15 different vocational disciplines) equip Suitland to offer the broadest range of educational options available in Prince George's county. The four-pronged academic focus is an approach that makes Suitland unique among other magnet schools in the county.

"The biggest thing that turned kids off from education in the past was that they got bored in class," said Hairston. "We have a wide enough selection of programs here to keep every kid's interest level high. This is a unique educational experience for students because it is truly a school of choice."

The Performing and Visual Arts Center, a comprehensive four-year program, offers training in Vocal and Instrumental Music, Dance, Theatre, the Visual Arts (including Photography), and Television/Recording Production, in addition to the standard academic courses.

Housed in an annex at the far end of the Suitland campus on the site of a former junior high school, the Performing Arts Center is now home to several new state-of-the-art facilities, including fully-equipped dance studios; a televison and recording studio; an experimental theatre; music studios and rehearsal rooms; a graphic arts lab and a photography lab.

Arts students must attend a full day of classes plus an additional two periods, so that the school day lasts from 8 a.m. until 4:10 p.m. Thus far, however, there have been few complaints. Elbert Kirby, a 10th grader who transferred from Oxon Hill High School to enroll in Suitland's Visual and Performing Arts programs, is one student who has found his sacrifices to be worth the effort.

"I get up at five in the morning and don't usually get home until after six, so I've had to adjust my schedule," said Kirby, whose interest is TV production. "Things here are different from what I was used to, but I like it. There's more interaction and freedom, and I find the classes more interesting."

Like the other magnet programs in the county, the advance registration process led many parents to wait in long lines for the opportunity to enroll their youngsters in the competitive programs. However, in order to be eligible for admission into the Arts program, students have to be auditioned. Upon admission, students are taught by a faculty of instructors with years of professional experience in various areas of the arts.

Ernest Messina, director of the Visual and Perfoming Arts program, said one of the biggest misconceptions about the program was that the school would be similar to the one depicted on the television show "Fame". It is a comparison he has heard numerous times before, and is now quick to dispel.

"We're not leading kids to believe that they are all going to be stars here. And we're not guaranteeing them anything other than a solid education," Messina said. "There are a lot of talented kids here, with a lot of potential. We encourage and try to nurture that, but we definitely discourage any type of 'star mentality.' 'Fame' has a positive message, but it depicts a high school of the arts as something it isn't. It doesn't express how a school of this type can prepare the kids for something beyond the singing and dancing."

"Preparation" is also the key element in the University High School Center, a revolutionary experiment that is being introduced to Prince George's County for the first time. The idea behind the University High School, according to Suitland's informational brochure, is to offer "an academically challenging four-year program designed to prepare students for success in college through exposure to the major instructional methods typically encountered in a collegiate setting."

The University High School Center is modeled on the ancient Greek Paideia proposal, a philosophical approach to education that emphasizes student participation in small group seminars. As a result, the program tries to simulate the college experience within a high school environment.

"There are 24 new University High School teachers; half are new {to Suitland}, and all have had to take courses in seminar methodology to learn the Paideia theory," said John L. Brown, program supervisor for the University High School. "Teachers have been asked to adapt. They were used to being the sole dispenser of information in class, and that's changing. With the Paideian theory, everyone is in the inquiry mode, including the teacher."

"We get the opportunity to talk with the teachers instead of them talking at us. They encourage us to express our opinions and support what we say," said 14-year-old Erika Roth, who rides the bus daily from Mitchellville. And, she added, "I like {the program} a lot. It's challenging without being too hard. It seems a little easier to learn and a lot more enjoyable."

Other features of the Center include lecture and seminar discussions as a teaching tool; an emphasis on individual study skills, test-taking skills and time management; advanced placement and honors study classes; opportunities to receive college credit for course work; required internships; a "computer applications" course aimed at making each student computer literate; a "big brothers/big sisters" mentorship program with college students; and a comprehensive PSAT/SAT preparation program.

The University High School Center is available by open enrollment to all ninth graders in the county. The only "requirement" is that the students be prepared to take Algebra I, Geometry or Algebra II (Trigonometry) in their first year. The first two years of the program focus on a general studies approach, but in the third year, students are required to declare a "major" in one of four areas of study: Arts and Humanities; Mathematics and Computer Sciences; Behavioral and Social Sciences; or Natural Sciences.

"Right now, I believe we are the only school in the state offering Paideia education, but I think Suitland foreshadows the direction high schools may take in the future," said Brown. "The teaching methods are eventually going to spill over into the comprehensive program and to the rest of the school, so that some time in the future, Suitland will be a totally Paideia school."

For now, however, with early reports indicating that the magnet programs have been well-received, Suitland is enjoying a revitalization of sorts. The school has already increased enrollment over last year by more than 200 students, many of whom came from private and parochial schools. And a waiting list of 200 more students ready to enroll next year has supporters of the magnet programs understandably optimistic.

"It's a general vote of confidence for the public school system," said Hairston proudly. "We're bringing a lot of kids back into the system and re-establishing the public schools as an attractive, viable educational option."