Howard University officials, citing budget constraints and other problems, have proposed closing the Howard University Children's Theater, a largely self-supporting drama and dance school that has served as a steppingstone to theater and film careers for dozens of city youths.

Vada E. Butcher, dean of the College of Fine Arts, which provides space for the children's program, has recommended closing it and its repertory arm, The Playmakers, by the end of the year. Butcher said the university can no longer provide a safe teaching environment for young children and proposes that the department's resources would be better spent on educating college students.

"It is clear that the facilities of Childers Hall are inadequate and inappropriate for the program involving small children," Butcher wrote in a memo last June to Howard's academic vice president.

"I visited the third floor today to find participants of the Children's Theatre occupying almost every one of the music classrooms. The situation was absolutely chaotic!. . . . In view of the necessity for reducing our budget, I am recommending the abolishment of the Children's Theatre."

In a telephone interview a few weeks ago, Butcher said her continued concern "is for the safety of the little children."

Parents and theater staff members dispute Butcher's view. "I have been with the Children's Theater for five years and there has never been a problem with safety or supervision," said Veronica Jones, the mother of a member of The Playmakers.

"For me, there has never been an issue of safety," said Doris McNeil, whose daughter has been in the program for six years.

Parents responded to Butcher's memo with angry letters and phone calls and with appeals to alumni. On Saturday they will hold a rally and talent exhibition from noon to 6 p.m. in Cramton Auditorium on campus.

"It is meant to . . . show what this program means to people," said Children's Theater Director Kellie Collie.

The theater program for youngsters ages 6 to 18 was started by Collie in the summer of 1973, housed in the Fine Arts Department with access to the Ira Aldridge Theatre. Today Collie receives an $11,000 university stipend in addition to his salary as a drama professor to run the program, which is held daily in summer and on Saturdays during the school year.

"I was teaching English here at Howard and the board saw that I had children's theater experience," Collie recalled. He directed 120 children in "Kojo and the Leopard." It was such a success that the university decided to make children's theater an area of concentration and allow students to major in it.

Three years later, Collie formed The Playmakers. Today, 36 of the 81 youngsters enrolled year around in the program are in the elite group of dancers, actors and singers who have won high praise and frequent invitations to perform here and abroad.

Alumni include accomplished performers such as Kellie Williams, 14, who plays Laura Winslow on ABC's comedy series "Family Matters," and Chris Thomas, a successful local stand-up comedian.

Of the nearly 5,000 youngsters who have gone through the program, instructors estimate that 2,000 have gone on to perform in professional theater and at least 10 work in television. But most parents say they do not enroll their children in the program, which costs $200 for Saturday sessions and $375 for the summer, to land them careers in show business. They say the intense training in voice and diction, creative writing, production and stage management gives children self-confidence and a sense of accomplishment.

Howard University President Franklyn G. Jenifer said the recommendation to abolish the program has been referred to Joyce Ladner, vice president of academic affairs, who said she is studying the issue.

Ladner said she wants to investigate space and safety concerns. "We are committed to continued service to the community," she added. But "it would help if some of the parents understood the dynamcs of balancing summer school for the {university} students and the children's program for the community."

Collie said the program is not possible without the free space. The parents already hold fund-raisers to pay for costumes and travel. Moreover, the program is a valuable community outreach for the university, he said.

"It is essential for the children's program to remain as part of the university. It pays off in terms of getting quality student teachers from the Fine Arts Department to teach," he said. "If the program should end this way, then maybe the university should rethink its mission."