When Ron Anderson thinks about education, he thinks about it in the context of the world that students will enter after they graduate and whether their classes are teaching them to get ready for the future.

That's why the vice principal of Northwestern High School in Hyattsville was quick to embrace a state-run program known as School-to-Careers, a two-year-old effort to prepare students to think about their education and their careers at the same time. The program uses internships, work-study, field trips and professional guest speakers in the classroom.

"Students get really enthusiastic about upward mobility and applying the skills they learn" to their work-study projects, said Darlene Bruton, one of Northwestern's coordinators for School-to-Careers.

The program at Northwestern is emblematic of what many educators say they want for kindergarten through grade 12 education in Prince George's County. School Superintendent Iris T. Metts is looking at stepping up business-education partnerships, including expanding the School-to-Careers program to all middle and high schools in the county, with business support. Last month, Metts said she favored scrapping plans to build a replacement for the Croom Vocational Center and instead wants to create school-to-career programs at the county's 20 public high schools.

The program stems from the federal School-to-Work Opportunities Act of 1994, which earmarked $300 million so that states could reorganize their school curricula around careers. Maryland received its $25 million grant in 1995, and Prince George's County received its funding in 1997. Katharine Oliver, assistant state superintendent of schools, said about half of Maryland schools are at various stages of integrating the program into the curriculum.

When federal funding ends next year, the system should be established enough to sustain itself, and some states--including Maryland--are considering legislation that would continue funding for the program after next year, Oliver said.

"At Northwestern, we have laid such a good foundation that it shouldn't be a problem at all" continuing the program with support from the business community in the form of in-kind donations and internships, Anderson said.

That's good news for Jaris Castilla, an 18-year-old senior at Northwestern who is pleased that the school encourages her to incorporate her part-time job as a telemarketer into her school schedule. Castilla is enrolled in the marketing program, part of Northwestern's School-to-Careers program.

"It helps me develop my people skills," said Castilla, who wants a career overseas and hopes to major in international relations at George Washington University next year.

The School-to-Careers program isn't without its critics, who say the system emphasizes preparation for minimum-wage jobs. "School-to-work programs utilize public schools as a feeder for the industry work force; instead of being educated, [students] are being trained to be a labor force" for jobs without much of a future, said Phyllis Schlafly, a conservative activist and president of the St. Louis-based Eagle Forum. "You train your dog, but you should educate your child," she said.

Northwestern was one of three pilot schools in Prince George's--including Eleanor Roosevelt and Suitland high schools--to get a $25,000 initial grant in the spring of 1998 to set up the School-to-Careers program. This year, the school received an additional $15,000 in grant money for supplies, printing and other costs. But the grant doesn't cover staffing costs, and until there are full-time staffers, the program will not truly get off the ground, Anderson said.

Right now, Northwestern's program is run by three teachers: Nancy Davis and Darlene Bruton, the school's coordinators; and Anderson, the coordinator for the whole 11-school cluster, which includes kindergarten through grade 12. One of the unique features of the program is that it doesn't differentiate between students looking to vocational school or college, because all eventually will enter the work force, he said.

Northwestern's program includes a work-development class on resumes, interviews and business etiquette, as well as programs to teach management, business planning and office dress. The school also places incoming freshmen in one of seven "pathways"--programs designed to give students exposure to career fields, classes and professionals in their interest areas--based on an assessment of the students' interest in the eighth grade. The pathways are technology/engineering management, information services management, consumer services/hospitality management, public service, arts and humanities, biology/physical sciences, or international studies. The pathways offer classes and workshops to help students focus their interests, in addition to their academic classes such as mathematics and English, Anderson said.

The overarching idea behind School-to-Careers is to teach students the relevance of what they learn in classes to real life, said Arthur Curry, director of Career Connections in Clinton, the nonprofit organization that runs the School-to-Careers program in Prince George's County. Exposing students to careers and professionals in their fields of interest gives them a special incentive to learn--both inside and outside the classroom, he said.

Anderson said parent and student response to Northwestern's program has been good. "Overall, [we're getting] very, very positive response from the students," he said. The goal is to give them tools to succeed, whether they graduate and take jobs, go to college or hold down a job while they go to school, he said.

Brianne Williams, a 16-year-old senior at Northwestern, already has reaped benefits from this educational approach. Her father sent her to summer space camp in Huntsville, Ala., after the eighth grade, which turned her on to aerospace engineering. She now takes physics, calculus and computer science in school and got a paid summer internship doing computer programming for the University of Maryland's meteorology department through the School-to-Careers program. "I want to build my own space station to do experiments," said Williams, who has a 3.85 grade-point average and wants to study aerospace engineering at Georgia Tech next year.

Anderson says the potential of the School-to-Careers concept is yet to be realized. "I think the potential there is just mind-boggling," because the new generation of students are going to be more adaptable, more marketable, and more focused in their jobs, he said. He is hoping Metts will commit to getting more businesses involved and having them providing money and internships.

Staff writer David Nakamura contributed to this report.

CAPTION: Jaris Castilla, a senior at Northwestern High, talks about her college and career plans, and the School-to-Careers program. She is employed by a telemarketing firm.