On the front page of the most recent edition of The Archetype, Wakefield School's student newspaper, is a frank and carefully researched article about race.

"Anyone who walks into the school is flooded by a sea of white faces," says the article by the paper's editor, Alison Squire. This comes after she asks, "Why is there such a want in diversity, and what is being done about it?"

In another era, an exclusive private institution such as the 346-student school in The Plains, with only three African American students, might not have allowed open agonizing about such a delicate question.

But, as other private schools in the area and nationally struggle as well to recruit and retain minorities, the Wakefield administration has been engaged in a public debate--and some self-examination--as it begins a campaign to correct what it sees as a racial imbalance.

In an interview last week at the school for pre-kindergartners through 12th-graders, headmaster Peter Quinn and Dibba McConnell, new director of admissions and financial aid, addressed what is being done about diversity, including an outreach program in 11 counties.

"I want some color here," Quinn said. "In the year 2000, we don't educate people very well if we don't expose them to a variety of cultures."

He was speaking not only about minorities who come from privileged backgrounds and can afford the tuition, which, without financial aid, ranges from $6,250 a year in the lower grades to $7,650 in the upper school. "We want people from all backgrounds," he said.

In the earlier days of Wakefield, founded in Rappahannock County in 1972, Quinn said the institution's main goal was survival. But now that the school has moved out of its temporary quarters in Marshall and recently completed a $1 million facility for its upper school, Quinn said diversity could be emphasized. "We're more able to focus on the question now," he said.

Private schools nationally and locally report a slow but steady climb in the minority population.

"The trend in Virginia is one of growth," said Sally Boese, executive director of the Virginia Association of Independent Schools. She said the total minority enrollment in the 80 schools the association represents has reached 14.9 percent of the total. The numbers have risen from 2,375 minority students in 1993-94 to 4,046 in the current school year. But Boese said she did not have the total enrollment figures for 1993 and could not calculate the change in percentage.

The association's national counterpart, the National Association of Independent Schools, which represents most of the country's private, nonparochial schools, reported in its latest figures that total minority enrollment at its schools was 17.8 percent. That included a black population of 5.6 percent, an increase from 4.9 percent 10 years ago.

The numbers are one indication of the complicated history of the effort to diversify private schools--some of which were started in the wake of desegregation of public schools and had exclusionary policies.

At Highland School in Warrenton, founded in 1928, the first black student was enrolled during the early 1960s, said Charles Britton, admissions director. Now six of the 389 pre-kindergartners through 12th-graders are black, with a total minority population of 25.

"We have a strong commitment to diversity," Britton said. "But as most independent schools in the area, we struggle with it." He said part of that has to do with the lack of a tradition by minorities in the area to send their children to local private schools. Quinn said the snooty reputation some private schools have earned also doesn't help among lower-income minorities.

At Loudoun Country Day School in Leesburg, which has 205 students in pre-kindergarten through eighth grade, headmaster E. Randall Hollister said his minority recruitment program has included visiting predominantly black churches and meeting with community leaders.

"We want to do everything we can," said Hollister, who said he did not have the school's minority enrollment figures immediately available.

At Wakefield, the new diversity push came with McConnell's arrival six months ago. She began an outreach program into the 11 counties served by the school but primarily in Fauquier County, where the largest percentage of Wakefield students live. The public school system there has a minority enrollment of about 12.5 percent, including an overall African American enrollment of about 10 percent, according to school figures.

McConnell has met with minority activists and civic groups, looking for potential students. "They tell me I have to be patient," she said. But her work has borne fruit. She said she has identified four potential African American students for the next school year. She said she looks for "a child who has some degree of success in something" at school, a child who is "ready to work hard and achieve."

Part of Wakefield's recruiting effort includes financial assistance, a main goal, Quinn said, adding that "the founders didn't want the school to turn into another rich man's haven." He said that in the most recent school year, $270,000 was budgeted for financial aid in the form of tuition waivers. That, he said, came out of a total tuition income of about $3.1 million.

Lolita Green, the mother of one of the three black students at Wakefield, said school officials bent over backward to make it financially possible for her son Terrell, 11, to attend. She is a clerk, and her husband works for United Parcel Service, and she said they could not have sent Terrell to the school on their salaries.

Besides cutting tuition by more than half, she said, the school arranged for a teacher to give Terrell a ride to school from their home in Winchester.

Terrell Green said he prefers Wakefield to the public schools he was attending in Frederick County. "I am learning a lot more," he said. But he said the absence of black faces has left him feeling uncomfortable at times.

"Everyone is nice to me, but sometimes I get nervous," he said.

For her part, Squire, the 17-year-old senior from Nokesville who also is student body president, said she believes the administration is sincere about its new push.

"They seem to have a plan," said Squire, who plans to attend Amherst College in the fall. This is important, she said, "because the school here will get as much from more minorities as they will get from the school."