If "private school" has traditionally meant wealth and homogeneity, stuffiness and exclusivity, the reality today in Prince George's County is dramatically different.

And perhaps no school better illustrates the shift than Queen Anne, a small independent institution near Upper Marlboro whose student body a generation ago was almost exclusively white. Today, it is 40 percent minority.

"The mission and philosophy of the school have remained steady," said Kimberly Kratovil, a 1986 Queen Anne graduate who is director of its public relations. "The things that have changed have changed with the times."

Those things are race, religion and affluence.

Today's average Queen Anne parent is probably comfortable, but not well-to-do. Some students get financial aid. And all applicants are welcome.

Private schools such as Queen Anne are seeing a surge in popularity this year, according to administrators across the county.

It might have to do with the good economy, the struggling public schools or more personal issues. But whatever the reason, the decision to "go private" is becoming more common. And, as a result, the racial and religious demographics of private schools such as Queen Anne continue to change.

The school graduated its first class in 1969. A flip through several early editions of the Coeur de Lion, the school yearbook, shows a sea of white faces on the then-new campus on a former tobacco farm snuggled next to 225-year-old St. Barnabas Episcopal Church.

Although the school is owned by the church, it is not controlled by it, as it was at first. It is governed by an independent board of directors that welcomes and encourages all denominations "to learn about how our faiths are alike, as far as goodness, truth and honor," said Jimmie Gorski, the school's director of development and alumni relations who began her career as an English teacher at Queen Anne in 1971.

"We don't care what color you are or what religion you're from," said Queen Anne Headmaster J. Temple Blackwood. "We're not here to turn out little Episcopalians. Our job is to run a viable school."

That, coupled with the very nature of private school, is what makes the school so attractive to applicants, Queen Anne administrators said.

"Because of the nature of our ownership, we're able to adapt to changes more rapidly," Blackwood said, noting the relative lack of bureaucracy and high level of parental input at Queen Anne, where tuition is still considered a bargain compared with some private schools in the District and elsewhere.

Annual tuition is $10,800 for the upper school and $9,500 for the lower school. But that's still below regional averages. Median sixth-grade tuition in the mid-Atlantic region--which includes Delaware, Maryland, Virginia, Pennsylvania and the District--is $10,350, according to the Washington-based National Association of Independent Schools. Average private high school tuition in the state is $11,000, according to the Association of Independent Maryland Schools.

"There is a natural selection: people who would rather own a larger boat than pay tuition don't come looking at our school," Blackwood said. "I think there's a misconception that people who come here must be wealthy."

Because of their increasing popularity, private schools across the county--many of them quite small--are facing the growth question: Keep it small and intimate, or expand to meet the need? It's a struggle to stay small.

"There's a lot of pressure for our schools to burst at the seems," said Peter Meade, headmaster of the 60-student Canterbury School in Accokeek.

Carmellia Nickens, an administrator at the 120-student Julia Brown Montessori School in Laurel, said: "The population here has been up over the last two years. All of our spots are filled."

For the first time in the history of the Queen Anne School, classes are completely filled, and some students were put on waiting lists, Blackwood said.

But moderate expansion is on the way. A 9,000-square-foot addition of class and auditorium space will allow Queen Anne, which offers sixth through 12th grade, to expand from about 245 students to 300 after construction is completed in September 2000.

Blackwood wants to keep classes to an average of 14 students, however, because he regards small class size as central to Queen Anne's character.

According to the National Association of Independent Schools, student-teacher ratios among member schools average 9 to 1. The equivalent national figure for public schools is 17.2 to 1.

"That's what makes us expensive . . . and that's what makes us great," Blackwood said. "One of the driving forces behind increased interest in private schools from individuals who don't have a history with them is recognition of the quality of the education. . . . Parents don't come here looking for a better education--they expect that to already be here."

Liz Whitmore said she was so frustrated with her son's experience in other schools--public and parochial--that she "was either going to move out of the county or put him in private school."

Whitmore never left Prince George's.

"It is well worth the sacrifice--but I could not do it on my own," said Whitmore, 44, a single parent and landscape architect. "The school has worked with me on payments, and my parents and a good friend have helped."

Nationally, 16 percent of independent school students receive financial aid, according to the National Association of Independent Schools.

"The schools are reaching out to constituents they haven't formerly served," said Margaret Goldsborough, director of public information at the National Association of Independent Schools. "Our schools are often stereotyped, but they have changed very dramatically in the last decades. And they are more visually diverse, in many instances, than nearby public schools."

Whitmore said her son Paul Millard, 13, has really found his niche.

"After I went to an open house at Queen Anne, we were extremely impressed. Now, Paul is really thriving there."

Goldsborough, for one, said it's not a competition between public, private and parochial schools. "We don't see it as us vs. them," she said. "We think there's room for all kinds of schools to thrive."

Blackwood added, "We're an important option for some people, and that's the key role we play."

CAPTION: "Our job is to run a viable school," said J. Temple Blackwood, headmaster of Queen Anne School near Upper Marlboro.