Laughter? Cheering? Clapping? Is this a math class?

It is at Marsteller Middle School, where a group of sixth-graders is playing a game of decimal blackjack. The point of the game, played with special cards, is to have a hand that adds up to one--without going over.

The game in Jerry Buhl's math class is only one of the enrichment activities available for students enrolled in the Marsteller specialty program, which focuses on math and science. A similar program at Graham Park Elementary is available for students in the eastern part of the county. Next fall, a specialty will be in place at Belmont and Sudley elementary schools.

The specialty programs, which will eventually be a part of every high school, most middle schools and some elementary schools in the county, are unusual in Northern Virginia. As long as there is space available, students will be able to freely transfer among schools, based on their interest.

At Graham Park and Marsteller, it's math and science. But at Godwin and Stonewall middle schools, students are preparing for the rigorous International Baccalaureate program. Next year at Potomac High School, students can sample the curriculum of the University of Cambridge Centre for Mathematics and Physical Science. In fall 2001, Woodbridge Senior High School will be a center for the fine and performing arts. Hylton High School will be a center for international studies and languages, offering courses such as Russian and Chinese.

Although some specialty programs are already up and running, the county is beginning its first big push to publicize them with a series of seminars beginning tomorrow. Brochures outlining each program have been mailed to parents.

"This is one of the most exciting things I've ever worked with," said Gail Hubbard, the county's supervisor of gifted education and special programs.

It's also a challenging program, said Buhl, who has taught at Marsteller since 1978. Although his students are all energized by math and science, they have a spectrum of math abilities. Some students are ready to leap ahead, while others still need work on some math concepts.

"They've got the interest; they're already hungry and ready to be fed," Buhl said. "It's fun for us as teachers, but it's also scary for us as teachers to say, 'Okay, what are we going to do to keep that interest up?' "

One day it might be decimal blackjack, but another it might involve an after-school trip to Manassas National Battlefield Park to look at the stars through powerful telescopes.

Jason Clapp, 11, who would have attended Parkside Middle School this year, chose instead to go to Marsteller and sample the science and math program. He said he liked the stargazing and "studying the life of human beings, organisms, stuff like that."

"It doesn't seem that hard so far, but I think it's going to get more challenging in the future," said Jason, a sixth-grader.

Andi Zumbrum, 11, said that she wasn't sure how much she liked science, but that she is enjoying the program so far.

"I think I'm being challenged more. I'm asking my friends a lot more," Andi said.

Information Seminars Planned

Prince William County is holding several general information seminars outlining the middle and high school specialty programs.

For middle school specialty programs, the presentations will be at 7:30 p.m. tomorrow at the Hylton High School auditorium, 7:30 p.m. Tuesday at the Gar-Field Senior High School auditorium, and 7:30 p.m. Nov. 16 at the Osbourn Park High School auditorium.

For high school specialty programs, the presentations will be at 7:30 p.m. Nov. 15 at the Stonewall Jackson High School auditorium and 7:30 p.m. Nov. 17 at the Gar-Field auditorium.

Individual schools also are holding presentations on their specific programs throughout November, December and January. Call the school for more details.

School officials recommend that parents and students attend the school-based seminars if they already know the specific program they're interested in. Also, information on the junior ROTC programs at Woodbridge, Gar-Field, Osbourn Park and Potomac high schools will be given out at the individual schools only.