NEW YORK (AP) _ On the first day of school this September, student Jamil Adams pulled Brother Kenneth Cooper aside for a short chat.

''He says, 'Yo, brother, I don't want to be sleeping with the homeboys at the homeless shelter,''' recalls Cooper, a teacher at the all-male Rice High School in Harlem.

But Jamil, one of Rice's 95 seniors, wanted a diploma, so he did it - served dinner, washed clothes, cleaned up and stayed over at the St. Joseph's Shelter for Men. It's part of the Christian Service Project, a required course in which each Rice senior performs 65 hours of community service.

The 15-year-old program has students moving from history class into homeless shelters and working with the handicapped as part of their homework.

''It makes things very real for the kids. ... The bum on the corner, the drunk, the junkie - he's your brother,'' says Cooper. ''The kids find out they're really just broken people in need of healing. ... They become people instead of faces.''

More than character building is at work here. Much of the boys' work is centered in Harlem, where most of them live and all of them go to school; the aim is to improve their lives and the lives of their neighbors.

Last year, seniors ran errands for senior citizens after an elderly Harlemite was stabbed to death. This year, handicapped kids at a nearby school are getting hands-on assistance from four Rice seniors with ''home living skills'' - using knives, forks and spoons, tying shoes and putting on clothes. ''It's a good feeling helping other people in society,'' explained Brock Holloway, 17, of the Bronx, who's committed himself to working with the physically impaired children at P.S. 138 in Harlem.

''Parents think, 'Hey, these kids are doing something positive instead of running on the street,''' said Holloway before returning to help the youngsters get into their winter gear at the end of a school day.

According to Cooper, a red-bearded man with boundless energy who has handled the project for three years, it accomplishes something else: ''It gives the kids a sense of self-worth: 'I can make a difference.'

''I like to throw this at them: Mother Teresa was a teen-ager once. Martin Luther King was a teen-ager once. But they made choices which led them where they are,'' said Cooper.

Rice, which 40 years ago was filled with the sons of Irish and Italian immigrants, has changed along with its surrounding neighborhood. The student body now is 70 percent black and 30 percent Hispanic.

Other changes are more obvious: across from the school, crack and codeine is hawked openly. The brothers, who live in the school building, have learned to adjust. ''The guy who runs numbers across the street watches the building,'' joked Brother Myles Amend.

One block north of this scene, Cooper's boys arrive Tuesday nights to run the show in the St. Joseph's Shelter at 405 W. 125th St. They serve dinner, wash clothes for the homeless, spend the night and serve breakfast.

Other students take on less challenging tasks: the majority of seniors return to their grammar schools to work as tutors.

But three seniors are helping out at a Manhattan center for infants with AIDS. John Watson spent his first day at the Incarnation Children's Center playing with one AIDS baby and later taking the infant to the center's Christmas tree lighting.

''He did a great job. It was beautiful to see,'' said Sister Connie, who runs the center.

Such praise for the students is not unusual, and the whole program appears to have a positive effect on them. While the dropout rate for city high school students stands at 29.7 percent, Rice graduates virtually all of its students, and 85 percent of those go on to college, said Amend.

The message is spreading throughout the city. Each of the 60 high schools run by the Archdiocese of New York now has some form of community service program, said schools spokeswoman Nora Murphy.

While the good word is getting around, Brother Kenneth stresses to his students that it's just as important to keep listening to the lesson once the 65 hours are completed: ''The world is full of angry, unhappy, bitter men. We need more saints.''

While none of them may be quite a saint, the students are taking the message to heart.

''These kids really need help,'' said 16-year-old Elijah Mustafa on a break from helping handicapped infants develop coordination skills and strength.

''It gets to my heart,'' he said. ''I think about how blessed I am to be able to walk and talk.''