Annapolis Middle School has won a coveted federal grant designed to encourage low-income children to get on the college track.

The grant--totaling $1.5 million over the next five years--will be used to provide mentors and tutoring to the students, starting in sixth grade, as well as college-planning seminars for their parents.

The same families would be followed and counseled well into their children's high school years--part of a long-term plan, as President Clinton said when announcing the grants last month, to motivate students "from the playground to the college classroom."

Said Dan McFarland, the local program director, "It's to provide a safety net, so they don't fall through the gaps."

But while Anne Arundel County has received the first $256,800, future funding for the program remains in limbo as part of the budget battle between Clinton and congressional Republicans.

Though nearly 700 school systems applied for the $75 million in so-called GEAR UP grants, only 164 were selected. Anne Arundel was one of two Maryland systems to receive the grant, along with Harford County. In Virginia, Arlington County public schools also received a grant.

According to the U.S. Department of Education, high-achieving students from low-income families are five times as likely to skip college than high-achieving students from high-income families.

However, students who take academically demanding courses are more likely to go on to college and succeed in the workplace, regardless of their financial status.

The goal of GEAR UP--which stands for Gaining Early Awareness and Readiness for Undergraduate Programs--is to focus on promising students early in their school careers.

Education officials say that too many good students end up forgoing higher education because no one counseled them to start taking a demanding load of college-prep courses early in their high school years.

About 55 percent of students at Annapolis Middle come from poor households, compared with 30 percent statewide.

Annapolis Middle's program is starting this fall by identifying 60 sixth- and seventh-graders from low-income homes who show the potential for academic success. The first step, McFarland said, is to engage their parents.

"If the parents are interested, then we have what it takes to get the kids interested," he said.

The parents will be brought to the school for weekend and summer meetings organized by University of Maryland-Baltimore County on a variety of college-prep topics, from how to get their children involved in rigorous class work to how to apply for financial aid.

GEAR UP staff members also will go to family neighborhoods to meet with small groups of parents.

And they will try to enlist these parents to volunteer at school. "It's truly a motivational piece for parents at this time, to really set up the children for success," McFarland said.

Meanwhile, students selected for the program will get special tutoring sessions designed to help them keep up in their current classes and prepare them for the study and research skills needed to thrive in higher-level high school classes.

They also will be paired with volunteer mentors from such organizations as Parents for Public Schools, the YWCA and the Boys and Girls Club. And they will get extra counseling from GEAR UP staff to guide them through high school course selection and discuss long-term career possibilities.

The first class of sixth- and seventh-graders will continue in the program over the next five years, while new groups of sixth-graders will be added every year.