Twelve can be a fun age. Get dirty. Jump rope. Play "NBA Live '99" on PlayStation. Experiment with mom's makeup. Get insight and exposure to college.

It may seem unlikely that seventh-graders would want an introduction to college. Most would rather wait until high school. And many preteens cringe at the thought of Saturday classes or taking extra, extra hard courses such as Greek mythology, physics or conversational Spanish. Yet, during the last 10 years, a steady stream of young people has taken advantage of just that kind of academic help from Georgetown University's Schiff Scholar Institute of College Preparation.

The college preparatory program was established in 1988 by philanthropist Lisa Schiff, who funded the program for two years after the university lost funding for its Upward Bound program. It is now funded by a Howard Hughes Foundation grant for minority education.

Initially, the Schiff Scholars project was aimed at junior high school students.

The program followed one class of students from junior high to high school and to the first year of college. But now, it will bring a new group of seventh-graders into the program yearly and follow their matriculation into college.

The first group of 50 students came from Browne Junior High in the Kingman Park section of Northeast Washington. Most of those students will graduate next year from colleges and universities across the country. Once the first Schiff Scholar class completed high school, the next school selected was Ronald H. Brown Middle School in 1994.

Brown--formerly Roper Middle School--is in the Deanwood area of Northeast Washington. It had been selected by the Sallie Mae Foundation to house its Kids To College accelerated curriculum program. The initiative exposes children in the sixth grade to the idea of going to college, while Schiff Scholars introduces seventh-graders to college courses. Thomas Bullock, the coordinator of Schiff Scholars, thought the programs could work together at Georgetown.

Dennis Williams, director of Georgetown's Minority Educational Affairs Center where the Schiff Scholars program is housed, saw the value in linking it to Kids To College.

"We're an educational institution," Williams said. "And Schiff Scholars is all about education."

Three years ago, Williams came to the university because of its community outreach programs. What impressed him most was the dedication that Bullock, a former math teacher for Schiff Scholars, brings to the institute.

"It's unusual for an office to have a program like this. There is no better example of community service at Georgetown than Schiff Scholars," Williams said. "It's Tom's energy and vision that keeps this program running. The most amazing thing about him is his faith. He has absolute faith in what these kids can do."

This energy and vision has toughened the program. Instead of simply exposing children to cultural venues, such as the Black Wax Museum in Baltimore, it now provides a more diverse and strenuous curriculum. The lack of a rigorous course schedule, according to Bullock, left some members of the first Schiff Scholar class inadequately prepared, which contributed to the failure of some when they reached college.

Since 1995, Georgetown University students have acted as liaisons to Schiff Scholars from Brown Middle School. The university students meet twice a week for five weeks with the younger students and discuss college options and opportunities. Some of the children shadow Georgetown students. For most, it is their first trip to a college campus.

"I was really impressed, inspired and engaged by them [the middle school students]. They were bright, filled with charm and wit and had a lot of personality," said Mea Campanella, a Georgetown graduate who teaches an English class to Schiff Scholars.

Besides shadowing college students, the scholars attend additional English, math and science classes on Saturdays and during summer vacation.

"A lot of people ask me, 'How does it feel to be in college?' I tell them, 'I'm still in high school,' " said Roger Keaton, 16, a junior at Spingarn High School in Northeast. He has been in the program since the sixth grade.

"It's 50-50. Some people want us here, some don't," said Kenan Hall, 15, who also has been in the program since it came to Ron Brown. Hall now attends Surrattsville Senior High School in Clinton.

"It was just something new. I wanted to try something new," said Britney McCoy, 16, who attends Benjamin Banneker Senior High in the Howard University area.

Bullock and Williams said parental support has been key. Cathy McCoy, Britney's mother, was ambivalent at first. The program seemed too good to be true. Although going to college was always emphasized in the McCoy household, the notion of an accelerated curriculum while Britney was still in middle school seemed far-fetched.

"When I first heard about it, I [said], 'Oh, whatever.' Then, when I met Mr. Bullock and he explained the six-year program, I [said] 'Wow,' " Cathy McCoy said.

She and her husband were so impressed by Bullock and his small staff of dedicated teachers, they placed their other daughter, Tiffany, 15, in the program.

"There isn't any intimidation for them when they're on a campus," McCoy said.

This past summer, Britney received an award that allowed her to participate in an engineering camp at the University of Dayton in Ohio. Tiffany, who just finished her first year as a scholar, said that she's looking forward to this school year. And why not, Cathy McCoy said. Britney has competed intellectually with students a grade higher and has done even better work than some college students.

"The program has really helped my kids. It's really a blessing when your child hears from Mr. Bullock that he or she can take calculus or is ready for college math. It makes them believe that they can do it," McCoy said.

Bullock also expanded the program to include a foreign study component. Last summer, 28 students and eight faculty members and chaperons went to Ecuador for 10 days to work on a range of assignments from genetics to the effects of altitude on a person with sickle cell disease. Britney McCoy wrote a 15-page paper about her sister's bout with the sickness while in Ecuador.

"There's not too many people my age that can say that they've been out of the country," Roger said. "Thank God, and Mr. Bullock."

CAPTION: At the Levey Center on the Georgetown campus, Schiff Scholars prepare for college. Kenan Hall, left, instructor Mea Campanella, Roger Keaton and Britney McCoy discuss a book on slavery.