After 26 years as a branch of the Washington Urban League, the Northern Virginia Urban League was officially recognized last month as the national organization's 114th independent affiliate.

As a result, a new era of service has begun for the suburban chapter, with plans to expand its coverage beyond the Capital Beltway. The organization also plans to enhance programs that address the social and economic problems facing minorities, the elderly and the poor.

Focusing in the past primarily on the city of Alexandria, local officials say that within two years they hope to develop ties with Loudoun and Prince William counties. In the meantime, the league also expects to further develop what has been somewhat limited activity in Fairfax and Arlington counties.

The new status caps a two-year transition in which the league sought to solidify community support by recruiting additional volunteers and corporate sponsors. The organization now has a 22-member board of directors and a 15-member advisory board.

Independent affiliate status will allow the league greater flexibility in setting its agenda, said George H. Lambert Jr., the organization's interim chief executive officer.

"This {new status} gives us community ownership," said Lambert, noting the organization's operating budget stood at $700,000. "We will be able to better target our services to address the specific needs of this community."

As Lambert sees it, those needs include employment, affordable housing and particularly education.

"We maintain that all students can learn, regardless of socioeconomic factors," Lambert said. "We must look at ways to neutralize negative factors."

Lambert pointed to Alexandria as an example. In Alexandria city schools, black students scored 28 to 45 percentile points behind their white counterparts on last year's achievement test scores, with larger gaps at the higher grade levels. Lambert said that while the gap has been narrowed in recent years, the numbers remain unacceptable.

"Those standardized tests give an idea of how the school system is faring as well as an idea about the performance of students," said Lambert, who has been critical of the school administration's handling of the issue. "There does not seem to be a sense of urgency. I have consistently questioned the will, and the commitment to respond to this issue. We want to work with the system, but we have to be about more than lip service."

Lambert noted that a minority achievement task force seldom met last year. He withdrew from the task force, but recently returned.

School Superintendent Paul W. Masem disagreed with Lambert's assessment. "It's George's and the Urban League's job to put pressure on institutions," said Masem. "I think I share Mr. Lambert's concern about the urgency . . . . George would like results yesterday. The school system recognizes that it takes time to make meaningful and lasting changes."

Masem added that some of the programs that need to be addressed "are not school-based." Earlier this summer Masem concluded "the gap is going to look bad for the forseeable future, unless something drastic happens to change the economic outlook and life opportunities" of many minority students from lower income families.

Lambert said minority education is of growing importance because the population is becoming increasingly diverse. Northern Virginia saw significant increases in its Hispanic and Asian communities in the last decade. Also, more blacks now live in the suburbs of the Washington metropolitan area than live in the District of Columbia.

"We are moving from a white majority society to a multi-minority society," said Lambert, whose organization offers counseling, computer training and scholarships to minority and disadvantaged students. "We have to invest in these people now, because these are the people who will be sitting across the table in job interviews in the next five to 10 years."

The Urban League also offers a job bank supplied by more than 100 employers, and job counseling for residents 55 and older.

The urban league also plans to continue pressing local elected officials to seek affordable housing whenever they are dealing with developers building residential complexes.

The league is providing counseling services to low-income families moving into the new Quaker Hill community, in which public housing is interspersed with non-assisted homes. The idea, according to Lambert, is to become a focal point of the disadvantaged, who are facing increasingly daunting challenges.