Nia Harris, 7, leaned over a low table in her polka-dot dress and leafed through snapshots of Beauvoir Elementary School's Christmas pageant last year. "I acted the part of the lamb," she said to anyone who would listen.

Chris Davis, 8, offered a different high point of his past year at the all-black Roots Activities Center in Northeast. "I like my school because they gave good lunches -- rice and lima beans."

These weren't exactly the perks of a private-school education that 1,700 parents and grandparents went shopping for Sunday at the 10th annual Black Student Fund fair at Gonzaga College High School in Northwest.

But the children's excitement might have been comforting to any who encountered them hanging around the wooden tables with signs announcing the names of the area's most elite and mostly white private schools: St. Albans, Georgetown Preparatory, Foxcroft, Sidwell Friends.

The aim of the fair, hosted by the nonprofit Black Student Fund, is to help private schools recruit black students. The area's 13 all-black schools were not there.

Black students constitute 10 percent of enrollment at integrated independent schools, said Barbara Patterson, executive director of the fund. The fund helps students identify schools that will admit them and raises scholarships for those whose families cannot afford schools that cost up to $10,000 a year.

Organizers argue that wealthy white children are not getting a good education if they don't have black students in their classes. Independent schools offer $12 million a year in assistance for all students.

"We want black families to have options, and the public appears to be responding," Patterson said.

From offices on 16th Street NW, the fund staff answers more than 200 inquiries a day. They also prod independent schools to hire more black teachers. About 10 percent of area private school teachers are black, and Patterson said 61 percent of those were introduced through fund efforts.

Steven Wright, a volunteer at the fair, is one. He used to teach history at Somerset School in Northwest and now has four children in private schools. "I'm not going to say that {public schools} are inadequate, but the private schools are better, and I want the best for my children."

Some parents are even more zealous. Robin Bright, a single mother of five from Northeast, got help from the fund to place her handicapped 6-year-old in Ivy Mount School in Rockville.

She said she now is so discouraged by the progress of her two children in public schools that she went to the fair to research scholarships for them and nursery schools for her two youngest children.

In 25 years, the fund has doled out $1.8 million to students.

The down side, said Aisha Satterwhite, 17, a senior at National Cathedral School, is that black students sometimes feel alienated.

"I don't have that much in common with most of the people I go to school with," she said. Living near Catholic University, she said, she hears "the black side of things at home. And then I go to school and hear the white side of things. Sometimes it's difficult."

Patterson acknowledges that students can experience difficulties. She said the fund helps guide students through the system and, where needed, provides intervention, counseling and tutoring.

The crowd at the fair represented a range of economic backgrounds, Patterson said.

Lynn McKinley-Grant, a dermatologist from Northwest, whose daughter recently began kindergarten at Beauvoir, said she and her husband long ago decided to include private schools in their financial plans. "We feel the time to start on it is early because it enhances the child's ability."