The school system's gifted and talented program found itself a target when Superintendent Michael E. Hickey began making budget cuts.

Two weeks ago, Hickey recommended that gifted and talented classes in social studies and science be eliminated for middle schools, which would mean that 12 teaching positions would evaporate.

Hickey's suggested cuts also would slash the program's money for substitutes and equipment and would eliminate the international baccalaureate class, a high-intensity, advanced program at Glenelg High School. The reductions would save $490,490.

The superintendent's plan for the gifted and talented program is a stark example of the new era of austerity suddenly thrust upon the school system this year because of what County Executive Charles I. Ecker has described as Howard's "fiscal emergency."

During its seven-year existence, the program has been considered one of the best in the state. School officials said that is one of the reasons they expected more public outcry about the reductions than what they have heard so far.

Rosemary Mortimer, president of the Howard County PTA Council, said she thinks the significance of the cuts hasn't quite hit parents.

"It's only been the past few days that I've started to get calls from people saying, 'What can we do about this?' " Mortimer said. "They're starting to understand how this is going to affect Johnny and Sue."

School board Chairman Deborah D. Kendig said she has received two letters from parents expressing "disappointment but understanding" about the cuts.

"I have been heartened by the community's response," Kendig said. "I thought the world would come down around my ears, but I think people realize this is a crisis."

Howard's gifted and talented program is split into two levels. Currently, there are "talent-pool" classes in language arts, mathematics, science and social studies. Of the county's 6,620 middle school students, 1,861 are enrolled in at least one talent-pool class.

Students also can participate in the program's resource rooms, where they work on research projects. Robert Glascock, supervisor of the gifted and talented program, said 567 students do such research.

Howard County's bicycle helmet law grew out of a resource room project, Glascock said.

Four years ago, a fifth-grader began to work on a book aimed at getting elementary school students more involved with science. The student's book, titled "How to Make a Chemical Volcano," was published recently, Glascock said.

Glascock said 55 percent of the students who use resource rooms are not signed up for talent-pool classes. The two-tiered system has allowed the gifted and talented program to "be as inclusive as possible," he said.

Although the cuts will keep the resource room aspect of the program in place, the reductions are "going to disrupt the {overall} program," Glascock said.

He said that the program had recently developed a curriculum to integrate subjects such as math and science. "If there are no teachers, then there's no one to teach the curriculum that's been developed," Glascock said.

Teachers who now have gifted and talented classes will be reassigned. And students who would take talent-pool science and social studies instead will enroll in regular courses in those subjects next September.

Mortimer said it is unfortunate that science and social studies will be cut "at a time when our kids need more science, more geography, more history. These cuts aren't welcomed."

Yet, she said, the current situation requires difficult decisions.

"The problem is, there have not been a lot of options," Mortimer said. "I just hope we're able to put these things back in as soon as possible."