For second grader Crystal Bennett, morning at Thomas J. Pullen School includes reading and mathematics and language arts. After lunch, she heads for the drama studio to work on improvisation.

On some afternoons, Crystal, who has an agent and a budding show business career at age 6, dons a leotard for modern dance or works on collages in the visual arts studio.

Such is life at Prince George's County's Creative and Performing Arts Center at Thomas J. Pullen, a grammar school version of the school made famous in the movie and television show "Fame." Pullen is the first grammar school of its kind in the Washington area and one of only a few in the country.

Youngsters at Pullen spend nearly 90 minutes each day, more than a quarter of total class time, in at least two arts sessions.

At a time when many parents are pushing for more math, science and computer instruction or simply a return to the basics, the public school opened this year with 600 students and a waiting list of 400, making it one of the most popular among the growing array of specialty or magnet schools in Prince George's.

Throughout the nation, the increase in such specialty schools for youngsters has aroused concern. Critics warn against narrowly channeling the energies of young people who have not yet discovered their talents or interests. But supporters argue that the correct mixture of traditional instruction and specialties can be complementary at any grade level.

The Pullen center opened this semester in a converted middle school building off Central Avenue in Landover and is among the newest magnet schools introduced in Prince George's as part of a plan designed to foster desegregation by attracting students from across the county to special schools.

Pullen pupils do not dance on lunch tables or break into song in the hallways as their fictional movie counterparts did. But from kindergarten through eighth grade, they get hefty doses of art, choral and instrumental music, modern dance, ballet and drama -- taught, in some cases, by working artists. Starting in the sixth grade, youngsters choose majors and devote most of their arts time to one of the artistic disciplines.

"In that each child gets {about 90 minutes} each day, it's probably the only school of its kind in the nation," said the school's artistic coordinator, Nancy DePatchett.

At Pullen, one cannot escape the sounds and sights of the arts. Horns and strings fill an entire wing, with rooms for individual or ensemble practice, risers for the chorus and a storage room stocked with shiny new woodwinds and brass horns. In the gymnasium, where youths once did jumping jacks, others now practice the demi-plie and other ballet moves.

Maurice Eldridge, principal of the District's Duke Ellington School of the Visual and Performing Arts, is president of a national network of arts schools. Programs for youngsters should be designed with special care, he said.

"My feeling is that it's wonderful to provide it at that age, but it should be open to kids, period -- not one that attempts to pull out kids and exclude others," Eldridge said.

Such concerns are not lost on Pullen Principal Lois Hobbs. A former principal of a neighborhood elementary school, Hobbs spent a year designing a program in which youngsters with varied interests and degrees of talent can participate. The arts classes generally complement a strong academic core, she said.

It is a design that was made with the recognition that most students will not make it to Broadway or see their works exhibited at the Louvre.

"We're giving them a well-rounded education," Hobbs said. "If nothing more, when they're adults they'll see a ballet and be able to appreciate the ballet."

While youngsters at other middle schools are taking home economics and wood shop, Pullen students get drama and visual arts, she said.

The arts tie into academic studies as well. Drama students will study Shakespeare and poetry, drama teacher Brian Clancy explained. Art classes will include projects involving nature and other aspects of science, according to teacher Linda Humbertson.

Prince George's introduced its first specialty, or magnet, schools three years ago as an alternative to forced busing. The program has been popular in attracting students from throughout the county, black and white, to schools in science and math, the humanities and foreign languages. Also, the county opened a Visual and Performing Arts High School at Suitland High School.

For its part, Pullen this semester admitted a racially diverse group of students, coming from as far as Laurel and Fort Washington.

The mix of academics and the arts was seen as a godsend by Cheryl Bennett of Clinton, whose daughter Crystal is the reigning Miss Junior Maryland and an accomplished performer. "It has been the answer to I can't tell you how much searching for my daughter," Cheryl Bennett said.

But other parents were apparently attracted to the school because of location or the belief that a specialty school would offer their youngsters benefits other schools could not match.

Loretta Hinton was looking for an alternative to the neighborhood school and Christian academy that her daughter and son attended last year. When the county announced registration for the newest magnet schools, Hinton said, she opted for a new experience for her children, noting that their artistic experience at the time was limited to the church choir.

"I couldn't believe that one school had so much to offer," Hinton said last week. She said she is particularly impressed with the academic program.

Some of the students already have their sights set on careers in the arts. The situation prompted Hobbs to ask parents in the first month of school to limit the times students are absent from class because of jobs or auditions.

"I auditioned for four or five commercials this summer, but the agent hasn't gotten back to me yet," Crystal Bennett told Hobbs last week, explaining that she is very busy.

She will be absent from school this week to compete in a national pageant, she informed Hobbs.

"It's televised," she said, "nationally."

For many, though, "Fame" is a television show they have never seen, and few have thought about where their fortunes lie. Many are young people whose interest in the arts is just being whetted.

"I want to sing or dance. I don't know yet," said 12-year-old Sabah El-Amin.

Joseph White, a seventh grader from Forestville, said he wants to be a doctor, but his mother liked the idea of developing his musical abilities. "She said, 'You have talent, you have a potential. You should go,' " he recalled.

Still others are self-motivated. "I just like to sing," said Marcus Moody, 14. A burly youngster who might do well on the football field, he has chosen to major in voice at Pullen, a decision that he hopes will help land him a recording contract or a job as a disc jockey.

Eighth grader Ardom Belton last week practiced his bowing technique on the string bass he hopes to play someday with the National Symphony Orchestra.

At age 12, Ardom decided to major in music at Pullen. He opted not to return to his neighborhood school so he could take advantage of the public arts program.

"This school," he said, pausing during the practice session, "it teaches a lot of things the others don't."