Imagination is a crucial ingredient of successful teaching, and over the past several years Washington's high schools have used it to introduce students to the unfamiliar world toward which their education is pointing them. In conjunction with private firms, businesses and associations, the schools have established career programs for students on their way to college. Combined with an accelerated curriculum, they offer a chance to learn from and work at places such as -- in the case of Woodson High School's business and finance program -- the American Security Bank. Those firms are providing funds and the expertise of their employees. The first class of these students has now been graduated. Has the experiment paid off in wider opportunities for them? Are colleges and universities impressed? The answer, at least in some notable cases, seems to be yes.

Cornell University, with tough entrance requirements, is an example. It is taking Deena Daggett and Nancy Hill, two of Dunbar High School's pre-engineering students. Dunbar's program, working with General Motors, Pepco and other firms, was "most attractive, very definitely," said Robert Smith, Cornell's assistant director of engineering admissions. "It is key for minority students to be involved in these types of programs. It makes them competitive with other Ivy League applicants who have gone to prep schools and been involved with advanced study programs."

School officials say 45 of the 49 graduates are college bound. There are now 700 students enrolled in these programs. School districts that are working to improve their academic reputations must be able to demonstrate that some of their students can do superior work. For students who choose to enter these programs, the school day is two hours longer than normal. For those aiming at engineering, there are extra course requirements in computer programming, advanced algebra, trigonometry and calculus. That kind of hard work always seems to be easier for those students who have a clear sense of the opportunities that lie beyond the classroom.

Schools usually take it for granted that parents will convey an adequate grasp of that side of adult life. But in those schools in which few children's parents are in such fields as engineering or finance, it's important that the schools do more. Here in the District the high schools have worked out a remedy that is slightly unconventional, attractive and highly promising. Equality of opportunity doesn't really exist until everybody understands what the opportunities are.