Nine years after it opened as the District's only model academic center, Banneker High School started the new school year this week with its first biology laboratory, a shiny $300,000 facility that had fallen victim to construction, budget and political delays.

Parents had begged for such a lab when the school opened in 1981, but year after year the Banneker students, who must take biology to graduate, conducted their experiments in a regular classroom with one faucet, no gas burners and electrical outlets that didn't work.

The new facility, which opened last spring, features shiny black tables with built-in gas burners and water outlets, a stock of sophisticated microscopes and hordes of scientific models.

"Compared to what we had before, this is a 200 percent improvement," said lab coordinator Betty Johnson, who came to Banneker in 1985 expecting the new lab to be built almost immediately. "I'm sure it will encourage more students to enter the sciences, {and} that is our ultimate goal."

Some Banneker officials and parents said they were reluctant to make public their excitement about the new lab because of the school's struggle to avoid being labeled elitist.

Several school board members opposed the idea of a model academic school, and the board once turned down federal money offered to Banneker on the grounds that it does not deserve more than other schools.

But students, parents and teachers at Banneker continued to push, noting that every other District high school had a lab and that a large percentage of the city's advanced placement students attend the school. Thirteen of the 78 advanced placement biology students in District schools last year attended Banneker, and 19 Banneker students will take the course this year.

A national school evaluation group echoed the parents' demand for a biology lab at Banneker when it reported on the school in 1986.

"It just adds to the motivation, and hopefully gives {the students} the ability to do more," registrar Judy Levine said.

Those who worked in the lab after it opened last spring and during Banneker's summer institute in July and August were eager to praise the facility.

"It added an uplift to the class," said William Hendrick, 17, of Northeast Washington, who took advanced placement biology last spring at Banneker as a junior. "There are all sorts of experiments we can do now in terms of working with enzymes or animals and doing experiments with photosynthesis."

In addition to $25,000 worth of spectrophotometers and photomicroscopes that have been purchased for use by the advanced placement classes, Johnson has ordered equipment for a special biotechnology curriculum that will be paid for with a $31,200 federal grant.

"It was a dream situation at Banneker," said Trudi Redmond, a biology and lab skills teacher at Dunbar High School in Northwest Washington who taught at Banneker's summer institute. "I've worked in a lot of labs, I helped design a model school in Heidelberg {West Germany}, and I am very impressed with this planning."

Banneker PTA President Vernon Smith, who led efforts to bring a lab to the school, said he was "overjoyed" to see students examining slides of Potomac River water under their microscopes this summer.

These kids are so in love with learning, and they had not had a lab to work in," Redmond said. "I could see it in the short time I was there. Their self-confidence just started to grow {as} they worked with the microscopes. It was just wonderful."