The Boyds Learning Tree Center, a low-cost day care center that has served one of the poorest areas of Montgomery County for 17 years, may be forced to abandon its popular Head Start program for preschoolers because it is spending too much in federal funds on too few pupils, the director said.

An educational program that was begun during the Johnson administration's War on Poverty, Head Start helps economically disadvantaged children develop language and math awareness before entering kindergarten.

The center in the Boyds community, in a rural area northwest of Rockville, has the only privately run Head Start program in the county. It operates with a grant from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services of $125,000, money that accounts for more than two-thirds of its budget.

Center director Beth Molesworth said she has been told that the grant will be terminated if the center does not increase its Head Start enrollment from 27 children to about 50. But the center is located in Boyds Presbyterian Church, which does not have room for more than about 40 children. It is currently operating at capacity with Head Start and other day care pupils, she said.

While 17 elementary schools elsewhere in the county offer Head Start, it is only for half a day, and working parents must arrange for separate day care. Having Head Start and day care in one facility, and not having to worry about mid-day transportation for their children, has been a major blessing, several parents said.

"I don't think the people who are cutting down on this program realize the impact on the majority of parents," said Barbara Belzer, a clerk in Potomac whose son, Matthew, attends the Boyds center.

"We happened to luck into a good program that doesn't cost a lot. You don't know how hard it is to find that in the same place."

At Boyds, tuition for about half the pupils is federally subsidized, and speech therapy, one-way bus service and two hot meals are provided.

HHS officials told Boyds administrators recently that the center was spending more than double the county average for each student.

Richard Spitzborg, acting director for the agency's office of human development services, said the features that made Boyds attractive also have made it the state's most expensive program. During the fiscal year that ended June 30, Boyds spent about $6,000 on each child, compared with a national average of $3,000, he said.

Marsha Plater of the Montgomery County Community Action Agency, which administers Head Start in the county through the public school system, said about $2,600 in federal funds is spent for each of the 900 children enrolled in the program countywide. She said the Boyds center had earned a reputation as "one of the finest Head Start programs in the county."

Head Start is "an outstanding program," said David Vadar, principal of Germantown Elementary School, whose school once had such a program. "It helps especially in the primary grades. Students benefit because it makes them ready to learn and gives them the ability to focus on their lessons."

Spitzborg said his office imposed the guideline requirements on the Boyds center because it could not allow it to use Head Start money on day care services.

"For day care, the Head Start dollar should be the dollar of last resort," Spitzborg said. "If it isn't, you wind up with a very expensive program."

Molesworth, who has been the director of the center for five years, said the costs of the program are justified because good, low-cost day care is scarce and sorely needed in her area.

"Our parents tend to be what you call the working poor," she said. "That's why this center is very imiportant -- because there are so few other services available."

Molesworth said that because the church cannot accommodate more children, the only alternative is to abandon the Head Start program.

Full tuition for Head Start and day care at the center is $57 a week, about $12 a week less than the lowest charge elsewhere in the Boyds area, Molesworth said.

Without the federal grant, she said, tuition charges will have to be raised, and cuts in services made.

Lisa Boyd, a Germantown resident whose daughter Jean-Marie receives a full subsidy to attend the Boyds center, said she will have difficulty finding another full-day center that also offers Head Start.

"I don't let just anyone watch my daughter, and there was no other program in Maryland that provided what Boyds provided," Boyd said. "I haven't figured out what we are going to do when they discontinue it."

County official Plater said her office will be working with parents to find other alternatives.