BALTIMORE -- Researchers at the University of Maryland's School of Medicine here are launching a new program to reach out to young girls to stem the city's spiraling number of teen-age pregnancies.

Social workers in the pediatrics department have announced a three-year Peer Companionship Project in which teen-agers will counsel their peers about pregnancy. The program is an extension of a pilot program run by the department for several years.

"While adults can lecture teens on the difficulties and hardships of being a teen mother, we've found a unique but simple way to reach young women," said Elaine Rubenstein, a social worker in the school's division of adolescent medicine.

"Let the girls who have experienced motherhood as an adolescent tell their peers what it's like. Or let girls who have never been pregnant, let younger girls know you can say no to sex or prevent an unwanted pregnancy," she said.

Under the program, 40 17- and 18-year-old counselors will be paired with 80 teens who are 15 years old or younger. Some of the younger women are pregnant and some are not.

The young women will be paid minimum wage, $3.35, to work two hours a week with each of two younger teens.

One benefit of the program, which will start this month, is the friendships that will be formed through the counseling.

"One thing that struck us during the pilot project was the isolation of these teen-agers," Pat Lanning, a social worker and director of the project, said of the earlier experimental program. "We were surprised at the number of 13- and 14- year-olds who said, 'I don't have any friends.' "

The Peer Companionship Project is funded by a $210,000 grant from the state Health Services Cost Review Commission.