Some reactions to a Virginia multimillionaire's guarantee of free college education to the sixth graders at a Southeast Washington school were predictable enough: Parents are suddenly checking their children's homework, spending savings on other needs and even planning tours of college campuses.

But no one foresaw that in the four months since real estate magnate George Kettle made his surprise announcement at Winston Educational Center, at least 13 children would drop out of Kettle's I Have A Dream Foundation.

That's what has happened: Some families moved to Maryland, some didn't like the open classroom structure at Winston, some simply transferred their children without explanation.

"I explained to the parents that you just don't get this opportunity too often," said Brian Smith, hired by Kettle to work full time for the next six years with the "Dreamers," as the Winston elect call themselves.

"I tried to talk to the parents," Smith said. "These are mainly low-income people and their children would be the first generation to go to college. I tried to show them what opportunities come from college. There was really nothing I could do. They just couldn't see how important education is."

Smith is not giving up. He still has 50 seventh graders on his list and he is busy getting them tutors, extra attention, special trips to museums and libraries -- anything that can enrich their education, keep them in school and help them break out of the cycle of poverty and into the American mainstream.

It is a tall task. The Dreamers are a rambunctious crew now, supercharged with energy and somewhat loath to devote themselves to books.

But Smith, a native Washingtonian who formerly worked at the Interior Department, and foundation director Mary Janney hope to instill a love for learning in children of varied talents, children from homes where the connection between school and a bright future may not seem natural.

"The kids see all the Mercedes in the neighborhood and they know those people don't go to school," Smith said. "I've got some kids who just don't want to come to school. And nowadays, some kids have this attitude that if you're smart, you're a nerd. But we're working on that."

Smith has organized an ambitious schedule of stimulation for the students: volunteer tutors from Bowie State College, the infectious encouragement of community sports organizer Calvin Woodland and occasional weekend boating parties at Kettle's Virginia retreat.

The I Have A Dream Foundation, an offshoot of New York industrialist Eugene Lang's adoption of a class of Harlem schoolchildren, has gotten off to a fast start.

It was in June when Kettle, who holds the franchise for all Century 21 real estate offices in the region, stood before an assembly at Winston, 31st and Erie streets SE, and said, "I'm the whitey from Virginia. Boys and girls, if you will make a commitment to work and study hard in school, I'll make a commitment to you that each and every one of you, without exception, can go to college." Kettle says he expects the program to cost him $600,000.

Mary Moore was in the audience that day with her daughter Shontae. "I said, is this actually true?" said the mother, a clerk at D.C. Superior Court. "This could mean so much. If I went to college, I would have been a nurse like I always wanted to be."

Shontae, like many in the program, would be the first in her family to attend college. Her mother is determined that she stay in school.

"I am watching her more now," Moore said. "Now I don't have to tell her to do her homework."

Shontae let slip a bit of a giggle.

"Well, most of the time," her mother corrected herself. "Really, there has been a great change in her work habits."

Mary Speight, who has two sons in the program, said her children didn't know what to make of the announcement. They had come to school that day expecting some kind of surprise. Kevin and Frederick thought they were going to get a football or some such gift, their mother said.

When they heard Kettle's speech, "they weren't very excited," Speight said. "Now me, I had one of my migraine headaches and it didn't go away, but it was eased."

This fall, study time at the Speight house has gotten more serious. "Homework is the first thing they do now after feeding the dog and making a peanut butter and jelly sandwich," Speight said.

Meanwhile, mother is doing her part, going to meetings of the Dreamers' parents, using some of her college savings for other family needs, including her own belated return to college.

"This is an opportunity for these kids to prove that they're as good as kids in Maryland and Virginia," Speight said. "The only problem so far is that some of the parents don't come to meetings and just aren't interested. That's really sad. That's the kind of thing that gives Southeast a bad reputation."

Kindling parental interest is Smith's top priority. The program coordinator has been visiting homes, urging parents to get involved, to help their children with homework, to act as chaperones on forthcoming class trips.

"I'm hoping that after a year I'll want to change my name because they all know me so well," said Smith, who grew up in the middle-class Woodbridge section of Northeast, the son of two federal workers who emphasized education.

"There are a lot of blacks who are down on blacks because they don't go back to the people they came from. When I worked for the government, I was out at 4 {p.m.} and over to the fitness center and out with my girlfriend or fraternity brothers. Now I'm here a lot of evenings, down here in the ghetto in a place where I wouldn't go after 10 o'clock."

Foundation director Janney said she wanted a man to be coordinator of the Dreamers because only 10 of the 50 children still in the program live in homes with two parents, and "I thought this was important since the girls do have models in their teachers and the boys don't have as many," she said.

Several parents said they are grateful for that move. "I know my boys have more respect for men as leaders," Speight said.

"I didn't have a parent when I was coming up and she does," Lillian Baker, a Metrorail car cleaner, said of her daughter Patrice. "I'm one of seven kids and I'm the only one to graduate from high school. Patrice can be the one to finish college."

The parents who are cooperating with Smith have been impressed by the extra attention their children are receiving. Smith has an office at Winston; Dreamers drop by to ask for help on a math problem or just to say hello.

But there are rumblings on the yard behind the school and even in class. Because many students transfer into Winston after sixth grade, only about half of the present seventh graders are Dreamers. And preteens are not too young to know jealousy when they see it.

"This girl who isn't in the program kept asking how she could get in," said Kenya Stroughter, 12. "I told her Mr. Kettle is a real generous man to give money to children he doesn't even know. But we're the ones he picked and this was our surprise."

Guidance counselor Edna Hicks, who supervises all seventh graders, said some of the Dreamers "are rubbing it in. You'll hear them boasting, 'I'm a Dreamer.' If that helps their self-esteem, great."

Parents, too, have felt an occasional chill. "The parents who don't have kids in the program play it down," Speight said. "One mother told me, 'Oh, anybody can get a scholarship.' "

Several of the children associate their newfound status with dreams of fancy possessions. Julian Montague talks about becoming an electrical engineer as he boasts that he will get a Porsche 944 ZX with the money he had been saving for college.

"The other kids can't understand what it's all about," said Patrice Baker, who is in the program. "Because I'm a Dreamer, now I can get a car."

That kind of talk leaves Hicks with some resentful children to soothe.

"I just encourage them to do well in school and tell them they will have other opportunities," she said. "They want to do what their peers do, so it is hard for them."

Most of the resentment comes from seventh graders who are new to Winston this year. When several of the original Dreamers left the school during the summer, the foundation decided to allow some of the students transferring into Winston to take their place. But not every new student could be accommodated.

So Hicks and others selected the most talented children, based on test scores and talks with past counselors. The addition of late comers to the Dreamers has raised enough objections that the foundation now says its list is closed; if other students leave, they will not be replaced.

For those in the program, recent weeks have been filled with new experiences. Last week, the Dreamers joined ninth graders from across the city in Project Enrich, a program of classes on test-taking and job-seeking skills designed to boost intelligent but underachieving students. Several of the students are enrolled in the University of the District of Columbia's Saturday science program. And after he learned that many of the children have never been downtown, Smith started planning a trip to the Smithsonian museums.

With the Winston program under way, Kettle is working to find other donors to follow his lead. Two wealthy businessmen have expressed interest, Janney said.

For now, however, the foundation's work takes place on one hallway in one school in a poor section of Southeast, where no one really knows what will happen to 50 children during the next six years.

"I couldn't pay for these kids' college," Smith said. "But I could help a white man pay for these black kids' education and that leaves me with something extra at the end of the day."