The D.C. school system has been given 250,000 new books, enough for every elementary school student to pick out three books as a gift to take home for summer reading, officials announced yesterday.

The books, which are being donated by Scholastic Inc., a publishing house, and distributed to the schools by the pro-literacy group Reading Is Fundamental, will be handed out to each student before the last day of classes, June 18.

RIF President William E. Trueheart called the gift of so many books "unprecedented in this country" and urged other U.S. publishers to follow Scholastic's example.

"Literacy does mean survival," Trueheart said. "These young people do need to read in order to survive."

In addition to allowing each of the city's 45,086 elementary students to choose three books from boxes being delivered to each school this week, the Sizzling Summer Books program will provide up to 50 volumes to each elementary school classroom and library before school resumes in the fall.

"We give these books out because we are in the business of creating readers," said Scholastic Chairman Dick Robinson, who joined Trueheart, U.S. Secretary of Education Richard W. Riley, D.C. Mayor Anthony A. Williams (D) and D.C. Superintendent Arlene Ackerman yesterday at a kickoff ceremony at Brent Elementary School on Capitol Hill.

The book giveaway comes as RIF, through a partnership with the U.S. Department of Education, is expanding its efforts to provide books to students and promote reading among low-income children. The organization, whose 240,000 volunteers currently provide books or read to 3.5 million youngsters, hopes to recruit 120,000 more volunteers and reach another 1.3 million children nationwide before the end of next year.

Reading is Fundamental was founded in 1966 by reading tutors who realized their young charges had no books to read at home, said RIF Chairman Lynda Johnson Robb. Her husband, Sen. Charles S. Robb (D-Va.), and Sen. James M. Jeffords (R-Vt.) also attended yesterday's announcement ceremony.

Riley said the D.C. project is especially valuable because research shows that many youngsters who don't have books readily available at home lose some of their hard-won reading skills over the summer. Ackerman recalled that as a young girl in St. Louis she visited the library each week during the summer to supplement books her parents bought for her.

Each official who spoke was introduced by a Brent student, who first read a short essay about why he or she likes to read.

Third-grader Amanda Ortiz, who introduced Trueheart, discussed her interest in books about science and animals, then read a sentence she had written with the help of a teacher: "A book is a gift you can open again and again."

Amanda, who lives with her parents and younger sister on Bolling Air Force Base in Southwest Washington, chose her books yesterday morning. Picking them from a huge pile on a table, she selected a short volume titled "Three Little Guinea Pigs" because she likes animals and could share it with her sister, she said. She chose a book from the "Jewel Kingdom" series because she had borrowed one of the sequels from a friend and liked it.

And she picked a longer book, "The Boxcar Children," because, she said, "I knew if I didn't get any chapter books, my teacher would kill me."

CAPTION: Jahidi White, a Washington Wizards player, reads to kindergartners at Brent Elementary School on Capitol Hill.

CAPTION: Stephen Martin, left, and Rebecca Hubler, both kindergartners, listen to a story in the Brent library as part of the kickoff of a summer reading program.