Little Latisha stared intently at the sentence her teacher had written on a sheet of paper and carefully sounded out the letters of each world. "Sss uh nnn -- sun," she said. Then she read aloud slowly, "The sun is hot."
Latisha is 4 years old, but like the other students in her prekindergarten class at Bowen Elementary School in Southwest Washington, she is already learning to read.
The 4-year-olds are also learning parts of speech, simple addition and subtraction and "survival skills," such as how to recite their address and phone number, how to prepare certain foods and how to dial the 911 police emergency number.
One 4-year-old from Bowen saved her mother's life last year by dialing 911 and asking for an ambulance after an outpatient from St. Elizabeths Hospital stabbed the mother at the family's home.
Still, D.C. public schools are currently facing a $27 million potential budget gap, and Superintendent Vincent E. Reed has proposed to cut back prekindergarten classes for about 2,800 students from all day to half-day in the hope of saving $1.7 million.
Some parents, teachers and elementary school principals say that even a half-day prekindergarten can still be effective. Many of the activities take place now during morning hours. Yet they are worried that this year's proposed cut will foreshadow the eventual end of prekindergarten in the D.C. public schools.
"I've already got parents who have registered [children] for next September. I don't know what I'm going to tell them," said Bowen principal Paul Artisst.
"To cut our preschool education would be fiscal stupidity," said social planner Irving Lazar, who worked on a recent study for the federal government that trumpeted the value of preschool programs.
Washington is the only local jurisdiction in the metropolitan area that offers all-day prekindergarten classes. More than 95 percent of the students in the system are black, and a significant number are considered "disadvantaged." In recent years educators have urged early school enrollment as a way to help such children become better achievers.
The all-day prekindergarten also has been an important tool in attracting middle-class families to the public schools, officials said.
It has proved popular in black and white schools in neighborhoods of expensive homes, where often both parents are professionally employed and want a full day's program for their children.
It has also been well received by parents in Washington's lower-income neighborhoods, where many of the children come from single parent homes with mothers on public assistance.
"Parents are always coming to me and saying, 'You're teaching the children so much, they're teaching me'," said Desiree Bailey, the prekindergarten teacher at Bowen.
In recent years, the demand for day care and preschool programs has increased because more mothers are continuing their careers and more women have found it necessary to work full time to help support their families. w
A recent study, sponsored by the Administration for Children, Youth and Families of the Department of Health, Education and Welfare, concluded that youngsters with some preschooling are less likely to repeat a grade level, require remedial classes or need placement in special education programs.
They are more likely to go to high school, generally perform better in school than those without pre-schooling and have a better self-image.
Today, preschool education is so common that youngsters without it lag well behind their peers in later grades, according to teachers.
"The child who goes into kindergarten without any preschool wouldn't be able to sit and listen and interact with other children as well," said Marty McVeigh, a prekindergarten teacher at Janney Elementary School in the Tenley Circle area of upper Northwest Washington.
Patricia Robinson, a first-grade teacher at Bowen, said some students who have come into her class without preschool or kindergarten training do not even know their last names.
Robinson said it is hard for these students to catch their peers. "The confidence they get (in prekindergarten) is important. When they come back to school the next year, there's the feeling that, 'Hey, I know this place, I know that teacher.'"
Children enrolled in prekindergartens get instruction in reading, language arts, science and social studies.
In Desiree Bailey's prekindergarten class at Bowen one day recently, the children were learning about adjectives. One child put on a blindfold, pulled an object out of a covered cardboard "magic box" and held it up to the class. The other students described the object -- using adjectives -- so that the blindfolded child could guess what it is.
During science period, Bailey discussed spring with the 4-year-olds and explained how plants grow from seeds.
Bailey also instructs the children on manners and how to set a table. For their class projects last week, the youngsters learned to make a tossed salad and a pizza.
The students also go on field trips to the Smithsonian and art museums, and listen to different kinds of music, Bailey said.
Some parents say they support the cutback plan, because, they say, a full day of school -- 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. -- is too strenuous for 4-year-olds.
But Judith Silberman, who already has one son at Janney Elementary and will have another entering the prekindergarten program next year, said, "I think they're bored at home. They can use the stimulation (they get in the school programs). They get home at 3 o'clock and there's still plenty of time for them to do things at home and be with me." CAPTION: Picture, Vincent E. Reed . . . sees saving of $1.7 million. by Larry Morris -- The Washington Post