Seventh grader Ebonye Watson no longer sits in front of the television while she does homework for her classes at Hayfield Secondary School in Fairfax County.
"I miss 'The Brady Bunch,' " she sighed. "I miss 'Diff'rent Strokes.' "
But the 12-year-old is sacrificing television for a bigger payoff: guaranteed admission to college and much of the money to pay the costs. She is one of 30 students enrolled in an experimental new program that Fairfax County school officials say is their most ambitious attempt in recent years to raise lagging achievement of minority students.
The program, called Alliance for Minority Success (AIMS), provides special tutoring, summer jobs and counseling to a select group of black seventh graders, most of them the sons and daughters of blue-collar workers who never attended college and now cannot afford to send their children to college. It is being sponsored by the school system, Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University, and a business foundation.
If the students meet the college's requirements for grades and test scores, they are guaranteed admission to Virginia Tech in Blacksburg and a financial aid package to cover most of the cost -- now $3,777 a year for state residents' tuition, room and board.
"This really is going to be a national example," said Lynford E. Kautz, executive director of the Fairfax County Public Schools Education Foundation, a business group that will provide funding and expertise for the program. "There's probably no other place in the country where a seventh grader knows a university is waiting for them."
Fairfax officials say the closest counterpart to their program is a New York City project in which millionaire Eugene Lang promised to pay college tuition for a classroom of sixth graders he met several years ago. Lang finances after-school tutoring for the students.
Fairfax County school officials said the business-sponsored education foundation will provide most of the funding for the AIMS program. The group, which was organized about two years ago to encourage private support of the public school system, has helped raise money for several public school projects.
Fairfax County officials hope that their program will reduce the disparity in the grades, test scores and ambitions between the school system's black and white students. Only 47 percent of the county's black high school seniors plan to enroll in a four-year college, compared with 70 percent of the white students, according to a 1985 school system survey.
"It's evident we need to do more than we're doing," said Jay D. Jacobs, a regional superintendent for the county schools.
The program also is aimed at helping Virginia Tech remedy its problems of what assistant admissions director Leroy Miles labeled as a "pitifully low" black student enrollment at a time when the state's public colleges are under a court order to desegregate. Of the 18,289 undergraduates enrolled at the unversity this year, only 792 are black, Miles said.
Students were nominated for the program in January by their teachers on the basis of perceived academic potential rather than grades. Some of the youngsters now make D's in their courses. All but one of the students would be the first member in their family to go to college.
Sitting around a classroom table on a recent morning, the 10 Hayfield students in the program said they had long dreamed about college but previously had doubts that their families would be able to finance a college education.
Only one of the 30 children in the program had ever been to a college campus.
According to Fairfax's Jacobs, college "is not part of their understanding of what really happens."
The program's primary goal is to raise the level of the students' ambitions through constant encouragement. "We say to them: 'You're an example. We expect the best of you,' " said Diane Lenahan, guidance director at Hayfield. "We see them puffing up before our eyes as we say it."
The ambitions of the Hayfield participants include Ebonye Watson's desire to be a fashion designer, 13-year-old Bruce Irvin's plans to be an engineer, 12-year-old Cary Snow's vision of himself as a computer genius and the dreams of Demetria Washington, 12, and Nikki Hines, 13, to be lawyers.
The students said some of their classmates envy their involvement in the program, which gives them additional incentive to succeed. "If you don't do your homework," said 14-year-old Andrea Thompson, "someone else might take your place."
The AIMS program enrolls 10 students each from Hayfield, Whitman Intermediate School and Carl Sandburg Intermediate School in the eastern section of Fairfax County, the area with the highest percentage of black and low-income families. Program organizers said they hope to add 10 students from each of the three schools every year.
Seventh graders were targeted for the program because educators believe that this is about the level at which students should be placed on a college-bound track.
Counselors will urge the participants to take the toughest courses they can handle.
Tutoring will be arranged for students who need it, and each participant will be paired with a high school "big brother" or "big sister" for coaching. Black professionals will advise the students on the types of jobs they can obtain with college degrees.
The business foundation will arrange summer jobs and career internships. It also will guide parents in helping their children choose courses and in saving money for their tuition. Financial planning seminars will be offered.
Although the financial details of the program have not been completed, officials said that college savings accounts, funded by the students' summer jobs, family savings and business community contributions, will be established for each child. Officials said they hope to accumulate $10,000 for each child, about half the cost of attending Virginia Tech for four years. The college will help the families arrange the other half of the financing through grants, loans and scholarships.
"Money will not be a problem -- that's what we told them," Jacobs said. He said students would be allowed to use the money in their individual savings accounts to attend other colleges if they do not choose to enroll at Virginia Tech.
The students who attend Virginia Tech will be required to maintain grades in college-oriented classes that meet the school's standards, and to supply their Scholastic Aptitude Test scores.
At a reception this month, the children will be presented with their conditional certificates of admission.
Jacobs said the program may provoke envy among children who are not selected but said organizers hope to create "role models within the minority community" who will inspire other children.
"What we're trying to do is change perceptions," said Jacobs. "If we're successful with this program, we'll be influencing a lot of other kids.