Here's the story problem: What does it mean to have 29 first-graders in one class?

The answer goes something like this: 5 days x (29 reading assignments + 29 math assignments + 29 spelling assignments) = 435 papers to grade each week = 1 harried teacher.

Or this: 1 teacher winding through the room + 29 children learning to write their last names, spelled correctly, the upper case and lower case both where they should be = very little one-on-one attention.

So no wonder Stephanie Milligan, who teaches at Gorman Crossing Elementary School in Laurel, is looking forward to the class size reduction plan Howard County schools are starting next week.

Seventeen of the county's elementary schools--those with the most low-income families--have added teachers to shrink the size of first- and second-grade classes to 19 students. The 20 other schools each hired one additional first-grade teacher and will get the rest next year.

"I'm so excited I have no idea what to even expect," Milligan said.

Teaching 29 students, which Milligan has done for several years, was "a challenge," she said, whether she was trying to fit activity centers amid 29 desks or even just hanging parkas and backpacks in the closet in the wintertime. "Most of the things were on the floor because they couldn't fit," she said. Educationally, she finds that a class that big is "kind of a disservice to the teachers, and it's a disservice to the students."

Now Milligan is getting ready for 19, and in a small, small sense, it's bittersweet. "Just putting out the desks--my room seems so empty," she said.

Primary-grade students--and their relieved teachers--aren't the only ones to be helped by Howard's class size initiative. Special education students at levels four and five, who have moderately severe disabilities but are often taught in regular classes, have been included in the calculation to determine student-teacher ratios at elementary and middle schools. With more students counted, more than 30 teachers have been added.

To better prepare students in English and social studies, the first subjects to be tested in the graduation exams that will be required in a few years, two ninth-grade teachers have been added at each high school.

Reading is also a systemwide focus. "Just lowering class size alone, the impacts will be there, but not as much as if we change instruction," said administrative coordinator Patricia Tidgewell, who oversees the elementary grades.

Among other plans for improved professional development, instructors have been hired to show teachers ways to better help children learn to read. Thirteen more teachers are being trained in the successful Reading Recovery program, in which teachers work one-on-one with the lowest-achieving readers in first grade for a half-hour each day.

In middle schools, a new initiative will integrate reading objectives into the curriculums of math, science, social studies and English classes. For example, a math teacher may present a story problem and a series of equations; the students will have to both select the correct equation and explain, in writing, why it fits the problem. In addition, three more schools (for a total of six) will have schedules in which all students--not just sixth-graders--take reading class all year.

Also in the 1999-2000 school year, in-school alternative education programs for disruptive students are being added in seven elementary schools, three middle schools and two high schools. In schools with such programs, students with minor infractions can be taught in separate classrooms instead of being suspended. Children also can go to these classrooms when they feel they need to get out of class, before they let off their steam inappropriately.

And the special education program has added staff, including 32 teachers and 37 assistants, and will increase services for autistic students.

As for school security, a much-discussed topic in recent months, there aren't any obvious systemwide differences. But the county sent 10 officials from the schools, police, fire and rescue and the hospital to a four-day seminar this summer in how agencies can best coordinate the community response to a crisis or natural disaster.

The county has added freshman girls volleyball and three Bermuda grass field hockey fields to make up for violations of federal Title IX rules, which mandate equal access to sports for boys and girls. In addition, each high school will have its own athletic trainer to tend to athletes' injuries and physical training needs--though the athletics department said it hasn't yet found enough people to fill all the spots.

The most obvious fresh asset for 1999-2000 is Lime Kiln Middle School. The building, behind Fulton Elementary School on Scaggsville Road, is a prototype for the county's new middle school design--which in fact isn't that new at all.

It's a return to the traditional, closed classrooms off hallways, rather than the open spaces designed in the last couple of decades, which some teachers and students have found distracting.

But in one way the design is very modern: Lime Kiln is "a very technologically oriented school," with five Internet connections in every classroom, said Principal Stephen Gibson.

The school, built for 713 students, will open with about 530. To get ready for them, Gibson has been ordering furniture and textbooks, making a master schedule (with an unusual choice of five hour-long blocks of classes a day) and working with his staff. Parent volunteers, meanwhile, have been unpacking boxes, getting a sign constructed, cleaning the building and answering phones.

"We've had incredible outshowing of support," said Gibson, who anticipates no problem in getting everything ready by the first day of class.

After all, the school's most complicated decision was already made last spring, when Lime Kiln's prospective students voted on their identity: They will be known as the Lime Kiln Leopards.