At Spring Hill Elementary School in the affluent McLean area, the Christmas spirit has been operating for most of the year as students and their parents have collected clothes, shoes and toys for children at another school where many families are poor and struggling to get by.

But the object of their charity is not in some far-off Third World country or even a poverty-stricken inner city. It's another school in suburban Fairfax County.

In an arrangement that appears to be the first of its kind locally, Spring Hill has effectively adopted Cameron Elementary School in Franconia, which has one of the most ethnically diverse and neediest enrollments in the 130,000-student Fairfax County school system. With contributions from most of the school's 863 students, Spring Hill has dispatched truckloads of clothing worth thousands of dollars to the school, and plans to donate to Cameron half the computers the McLean students win by collecting grocery receipts under a program sponsored by local supermarket chains.

"We're talking about two very different schools, where the needs and the children are very different," said Spring Hill Principal Elizabeth Rice. "This is a way of sharing and it's a good lesson for kids and the parents have been absolutely religious about this."

The fledgling partnership also is an illustration of the increasing disparity between rich and poor schools, even within one of the nation's wealthiest counties. In spite of the county's overall affluence, the demographics of some sections of Fairfax, particularly east of Interstate 95, have changed dramatically in recent years.

At Cameron Elementary, three of every five students are black, Hispanic or Asian. Many of them are children of refugees or immigrants from 27 different countries. Often the students arrive at Cameron barely literate in their own language, let alone English.

Half the school's 403 students come from families with incomes low enough that they qualify for free or discounted lunches.

According to the principal, some show up at school without coats in winter and a few young boys wear their mothers' shoes because they have none of their own.

When teacher Lillie Vinson wanted her fifth-graders to make gingerbread houses for the holidays last week, she sent home a letter asking parents to send supplies. However, 12 of her 23 students couldn't afford to, so Vinson bought most of the sugar, eggs and graham crackers herself.

"People just don't believe needs like this exist in Fairfax County, but they do, and not just here," said Cameron Principal George F. Towery.

By contrast, 82.5 percent of Spring Hill students are white, and fewer than 2 percent qualify for free or reduced-price lunches.

While Cameron students on average perform better than half of their peers nationally on standardized tests, Spring Hill students score about 30 points higher.

The relationship between Cameron and Spring Hill began last spring after Towery mentioned his children's desperate need for clothes to Rice, a longtime friend.

Since then, Spring Hill families have sent so many of their hand-me-downs that Towery set aside a 10-by-15-foot storage room next to the cafeteria as a center where families can come and pick out what they need. The room is crammed to overflowing with items -- many of them bearing designer labels -- which have been sorted by type and size.

Other schools are joining the effort. Students and parents from Orange Hunt Elementary School in Springfield last week sent two truckloads of toys and other holiday gifts for Cameron children.

Liubo Yepez, a 10-year-old third-grader who arrived in the United States from Peru last December, proudly showed off his new Batman T-shirt, sweater, bluejeans and shoes to his classmates Friday. "I like them," he said. His parents did too, he added. "They smiled."

Likewise, Fahima Sultany, 8, who told teachers her family fled Afghanistan in the middle of the night with nothing but the clothes they were wearing, was decked out in her new pink, flowery dress with a small rose pinned to the belt. When she opened the gift last week, she said, "I put the flower on and said tomorrow I'm going to wear this."

While Cameron receives extra operating funds as a "special needs" school, it does not enjoy the benefit of a community able to raise private money to put new computers or other extras in the classrooms. When Towery decided last year that the school needed a classroom with 28 state-of-the-art computers linked to a national network, he had to give up a teacher position to get it. "It has been worth the trade," he said.

Towery is known for promoting a homey atmosphere at the school. A menagerie of chickens and ducks occupy the courtyard, a rabbit and two cockatoos roam the classrooms, and a cat named Cameron has the run of the office.

Towery said the pets help make the children comfortable in school. "This is really home for a lot of these kids, a secure place for them," he said.

........................Spring Hill....Cameron

Year opened.................1965 .....1953

Total enrollment............863 .......403




Asian/Pacific Islander.....12.6%.......9.9%

American Indian/Eskimo.......0.0%.......0.3%

Students in Chapter 1........0 .......55

Students in English-

as-a-Second-Language....33 .......53

Students receivingfree

or discounted lunch .........1.5%.......52.0%

Avg. daily absentee rate.....5.0%.......7.1%

Sixth-grade test scores:

Language....................77 .......49

Math........................79 .......50

Composite...................81 .......44

* To qualify for free or reduced-price lunch, a student's family must be below a certain income level depending on the household size.

** Based on scores of sixth-graders in 1988-89 school year on the Iowa Tests of Basic Skills. The score represents a percentile, meaning that the average student did better than X percent of peers nationwide. SOURCES: Fairfax County Public School Profiles 1989-90; Fairfax County Department of Management Information Services, Office of Facilities Planning Services and Office of Food Services; Cameron and Spring Hill elementary schools.