Operation Rescue, credited with helping thousands of first, second and third graders meet the D.C. school system's tougher promotion standards last year, will be expanded this year to assist children in grades 4 through 6.

In order to ease the transition to new and more stringent academic levels for fourth, fifth and sixth graders, school officials will begin recruiting volunteers later this month. They hope to have 1,000 tutors ready to help with classroom instruction, beginning next month.

"Hopefully, this year's effort will be more preventive," said Connie Spinner, volunteer coordinator for the D.C. Public Schools. "We want to start in early so that there will be fewer youngsters falling into retention," she said.

Operation Rescue, the brainchild of then-acting schools superintendent James Guines, began last March after about half of the city's 21,000 first through third graders failed to master enough basic reading or math skills to be promoted to the second half of the curriculum.

Under the direction of former City Council Chairman Sterling Tucker, Operation Rescue recruited about 900 volunteers to spend four hours each week tutoring or assisting teachers during school hours.

Volunteers came from many occupations and all parts of the city and suburbs. They included retired teachers, city employes, homemakers, doctors and lawyers, and they worked in the 40 target schools where rates of failure were highest. By the time both volunteers and regular teachers throughout the schools finished their work in the spring, all but 3,800 students had mastered enough reading and math to be promoted to the next grade.

This year Operation Rescue will be directed by Betti Wahley of the Urban League, a former deputy assistant secretary of HUD. Wahley and Spencer will work together to recruit volunteers. The Urban League will contribute $70,000 through the United Way to provide materials and training for volunteers. Officials also are hoping to recruit retired teachers to assist classroom teachers and to supervise tutors.

Two other programs that were initiated last winter will be continued this school year.

Operation Outreach, begun last March, will provide academic help for students in grades 6 through 12. Unlike Operation Rescue, Operation Outreach will be conducted after school, from 4:30 to 8:30 p.m., in selected schools. Its coordinators hope to recruit 300 volunteers this year.

The third tutoring program available to D.C. students will come under a $14 million Title I grant providing support in basic skills for disadvantaged youths. Students in the fourth, fifth and sixth grades in 12 elementary schools will be able to receive extra help in basic reading and math skills after school from D.C. personnel. Neither the schools nor the pupils have been identified yet, but students must be eligible for Title I funds, which are earmarked for low-income youths with low test scores.

Last year 3,000 students participated in this program, and the same number of participants is expected this year. Parental permission is required.

In addition, Spinner said, school officials are working with the C&P Telephone Co. to provide a nightly "Homework Hotline" so that students can call a D.C. teacher to get help with tough homework assignments.

"We definitely are trying to get a jump on it," Spinner said. "We know we're going to need volunteer tutors in D.C. Public schools for a long, long time."