Last spring, Amber Simmons received the dreaded thin letter from Bowie State University, telling the Eleanor Roosevelt High School senior that she would not be admitted.

But then came a phone call. She could attend after all.

"Oh, I was excited, overwhelmed, thankful," said Simmons, 19, who had graduated with a grade point average of 2.9 but an overall Scholastic Assessment Test score of 800--100 points short of the admission standard at Bowie.

Simmons, who commutes from her home in the Bowie-Mitchellville area, didn't know it at the time, but she is part of the university's new "Center for Success" program, designed to admit a few promising students who, for one reason or another, didn't quite make the grade. She is one of 11 students who were added to this fall's freshman ranks.

"One of the things I think is important to our market area is not to focus so tightly on making sure everyone meets every criteria," said Wendell Holloway, Bowie State's interim president. "There are other indicators of possible success in a college environment."

With that in mind, Holloway and Abdul Bangura, a professor of political science in the department of history and government, looked at a computer printout of 381 students rejected for admission to Bowie's freshman class. To maintain accreditation, the school is allowed to admit no more than 15 percent of its entering class with poor high school grades or board scores below 900.

This year's class of 390--which includes the 11--is down 18.1 percent from last year's 465, but Holloway said the Center for Success program is "not an effort to boost enrollment. . . . We weren't scrounging around trying to find students to fill our slots. The two are not related."

From the list of those rejected, they identified 61 students "with the potential to succeed," Bangura said. Of these, 11 are enrolled at Bowie, and 15 others will enter in the spring. One student, for example, had board scores of 1040, but only a 1.9 grade point average.

This is not a remedial program, the administrators stressed. The students are taking the same courses as their peers, but their progress is being monitored more closely.

"We want to mentor these people, coach them, give them the attention you normally reserve for folks in honors programs," Holloway said. "Just paying attention to people can make such a difference. It's a case of helping people develop the survival skills."

Simmons said Bangura has "been keeping in touch. . . . He contacted me a lot trying to get me processed. He left his door open to me, if I needed any help."

Holloway said that when he and Bangura called students, they learned many had been admitted to schools "with better reputations than ours," while others were planning to attend a community college and were deeply disappointed by the Bowie rejection.

"I thought I was going to community college; I was getting ready to buy books and everything," said Tunda Dare, of Cheltenham, who graduated from Bowie High with a 2.0 average and 950 board scores. Bangura "called me, and like I was now going to get a chance to go to the university. I was shocked, because I didn't expect it."

His mother, Roseline Dare, said: "I was praying he would get into a regular college. I was thrilled because I didn't want him to go a community college in the first place."

So far, so good, said Tunda, 18, who lives in a dormitory at the school off Route 197. "I like the campus," he said. "I'm doing my work. I've met a few students."

Titania Dunn, 18, had a 3.2 average from Northwestern High School in Hyattsville but only 870 on her SAT. Of the four schools to which she applied, only Talladega College, in Alabama, accepted her, and she couldn't afford it. "I didn't really want to go to Bowie, but financially it was there for me," she said, after receiving the call from Bangura. Bowie's in-state tuition and fees are $3,664. "It's fine," she said. "I like how small the classes are, and the teachers are real nice. I think I'll stay there."

Bangura, she said, "asks me how my classes are doing, trying to keep me on track. He's been real nice. He's been like the nicest person to me since I started."

The oldest in the group is Jonathan Simmons, 22, from an Army family. (He and Amber Simmons are not related.) "Being a dependent in the military was something that could be very stressful at times," said Simmons, who attended four different high schools. In the second to last, on an American military base in Germany, he was captain of the football and track teams and "made lots of friends." Then the family moved back to the states, where he finished at Woodbridge High School in Virginia with a 1.97 average and 922 board scores.

From there, Simmons attended Northern Virginia Community College and helped around the house. "I became complacent at times. I basically wasted opportunities." Then, managing a bagel store, he had an epiphany: To succeed, he needed college.

He tried for Bowie and was turned down. "Then they called me back," he said.

Holloway, he said, "saw something in me. He didn't let my credits speak for me. He let me speak for myself. He gave me the opportunity to make good. I'm trying to get onto the path for success. Classes are going real well. The professors care about the students. There is a lot of emotion with the opportunity to go to school."

Some of that emotion found its way into a letter he wrote to Holloway. "It almost brought tears to your eyes," Holloway said.

In it, Simmons expressed his "deepest gratitude to you. . . . Now I can make my dreams come true. You decided to give me another shot. For this, I am forever in your debt."

CAPTION: Amber Simmons, 19, is a freshman at Bowie State University.