Marjorie Reed, of Fairmont Heights, a single mother of five whose annual salary at the Congressional Credit Union is about $21,000, believes in the value of education. All of her children have either graduated from or attend private schools, Reed said, thanks to the Black Student Fund, which held its 10th annual school fair Sunday.

"Chucky and Marjorie are both in college now," Reed said of her elder children, " . . . and I can see the benefit {of private education} . . . . It gave them a head start."

Reed was a volunteer at the fair at Gonzaga College High School in the District, where 1,700 parents and grandparents from Maryland and the District -- many with children in tow -- came shopping for an opportunity to send their children to some of the region's most elite institutions: Stone Ridge, St. Albans, Georgetown Preparatory, The Landon School.

The aim of the annual fair is to help private schools identify and recruit black students. The area's 13 all-black independent schools were not represented.

Today, black students make up 10 percent of enrollment at the independent schools, according to Barbara Patterson, executive director of the program. The nonprofit fund recruits black students, identifies schools that might admit them and raises scholarship money for those who need it.

Local private day schools cost up to $10,000 a year, and boarding schools cost up to $17,000.

The underlying mission of the fund is to encourage racial and economic diversity in independent schools.

The fund's organizers argued that "the wealthy white children who were attending these schools are not really getting a good education if they weren't learning that there were bright black kids in their school," Patterson said.

The independent schools offer $12 million a year in assistance to all students.

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

The families at the fair represented a broad range of economic backgrounds, Patterson said. About a third of those who attended Sunday's fair are Maryland residents.

The fund, working out of offices in the District, also prods independent schools to hire more black teachers and deal "with racism in the institutions themselves," Patterson said. About 10 percent of area private school teachers are black, and Patterson said 61 percent of them were introduced through fund recruitment efforts.

Robin Bright got help from the fund to place her 6-year-old in Ivy Mount School in Rockville.

Bright said she was so discouraged by the progress of her two children in public schools that she went to the fair to research scholarship possibilities for them and nursery schools for her two youngest children.

"I'm planning ahead of time," she said, "even if it means working two or three jobs."

In the 25 years since it was founded, the fund has doled out $1.8 million to students. This year, it is paying partial tuition for 210 in 46 schools.

Fund leaders say 96 percent of scholarship recipients remain in school, the highest retention rate of any group in private schools; 99 percent go on to college.

The down side, said Aisha Satterwhite, 17, a senior at the National Cathedral School, is that she sometimes feels 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 also works to shepherd the students through the system and, where needed, provide intervention, counseling and tutoring.