The Prince George's County Board of Education voted last night to spend $5.1 million for computers to improve the quality of education at all elementary schools that are not part of the county's magnet or enrichment programs.

Most of the 1,220 computers will be distributed, starting in April, to 288 second- and third-grade classrooms in 68 elementary schools throughout the county. Each classroom will have four computers. In addition, one computer will be installed in each principal's office to monitor student progress and help teachers with instruction plans.

The continuing popularity and success of the system's magnet program, which is the key to the county's desegregation effort, and its proposed expansion have prompted the board to seek ways to improve learning at schools without magnet programs and ones that are not part of a special enrichment program. The latter program, called Milliken II, gives certain schools extra instructional incentives, such as computers, because their locations make them difficult to desegregate by busing.

School officials said the addition of computers to the other schools should improve the quality of education there and enable teachers to give more individual attention to pupils. Desegregation efforts would be aided if the addition of the computers persuades parents that quality education can be had at their neighborhood schools.

School officials said the project is the largest computer education program in the system's history. They said it differs from programs in other large school systems because it will place computers in the classroom instead of requiring students to go to computer labs.

"We can individualize instruction. We can attack directly each kid's learning program. We can place these kids appropriately in the {software} courses so they can complete the objectives at their grade level," said George Ridler, associate superintendent for administration.

"Nobody does it like this," said Superintendent John A. Murphy. "We try to take a unique approach to deal with pupil learning."

The plan to acquire the computers was discussed as early as last summer, said school system spokesman Brian Porter. He said recent test score achievements by students at Dodge Park Elementary, one of the Milliken II schools equipped with a computer lab and special resource teachers, led some officials to believe that success can be duplicated in other schools.

"At Dodge Park, we didn't pay attention until the scores hit, then boom . . . . This is just the beginning," Porter said. "Classrooms of the future will all be designed with electronic teaching aids."

Ridler said the computers would not only supplement regular class instruction but also enable teachers to do more.

The IBM computers operate with compact disks that hold as much information as a volume of an encyclopedia, Porter said. While a teacher works with some of the students, a smaller group will sit and work on the computers, which Porter likened to "electronic teachers' aides."

School board members were unanimous in their enthusiasm for the program. "I love it," said Angelo Castelli, a board member from District 8. "This is the way to go. The computers will broaden the perspective of the kids."

Teachers who will be trained on the computers will spend a half day each week learning to use them, Ridler said. He added that the training period will be more than a year.

He said all the computers should be installed by the end of June.