Calvert Elementary School Principal Gene Rizzo can boast of having the one thing that virtually all principals want--a student-to-teacher ratio of 8 to 1.

It lasts for only 40 minutes a day for each first-grader at the school in Prince Frederick, but it's a start, Rizzo said.

The small-group instruction is part of Ready to Learn, a pilot program started at Calvert Elementary this year as an early intervention effort. The program is being touted as a way to help kids keep up so they don't get lost academically later.

Ready to Learn includes several initiatives, such as a Reading Academy, which uses computer programs to test and build phonemic awareness and reading comprehension for at-risk students; after-school tutoring; and a reading program for special education students.

The approach is applied schoolwide, but much of it is aimed at first-graders. If successful, Ready to Learn could be approved for all Calvert County elementary schools.

On a recent school day, first-grader Susan Yeatman drew a desk, a woman and a child. Below the figures she wrote, "I want to be a teacher."

She shared a table with another student drawing pictures and writing about what job he wants when he grows up. Around them in the learning center set up for the program were other tables at which students performed tasks that involved writing, drawing, reading and making maps.

The learning center is one stop in the schedule that all first-graders have for their reading and language arts instruction. Each first-grader spends about 40 minutes a day in the learning center. While one group works on a certain subject, another group works on something else.

Jill Whetzel, who runs the center, said she creates tasks that will stimulate the youngsters' imaginations while getting them to use basic reading, writing and listening skills. The activities also test their knowledge in certain subject areas, such as social studies and science.

Some of the tasks even test the children on directions--such as Dakota Dalrymple's successful drawing of a lake west of a volcano on his work sheet, as asked, during one class--and their senses, as three students at another table sniffed containers of lemons or soap until they could match the scent with the picture.

"They're in here doing constructive things, reinforcing skills," Whetzel said.

Whetzel wants the students to take the lead on the projects; she answers their questions when they raise their hands, but ultimately they make the choices as to what to draw or write.

"I tell them these are their projects," she said.

The schedule also takes students to a computer lab, where they play games that test their basic reading, writing and math skills. On a recent day, 14 first-graders sat in the lab wearing headphones, listening to a voice prompting them to count the number of cars on their screen or put 7 and 7 together.

Next was their whole-group instruction with a teacher-to-student ratio of 16 to 1, followed by their small-group instruction, with the 8 to 1 ratio. Principal Rizzo said he was able to decrease the class size with funds from a state grant and an allocation from the county Board of Education that allowed him seven first-grade teachers instead of the normal four.

In one classroom, Wendy Jenkins asked her 16 students to say, "It is a short ride to the seashore." Next door, Shelia Niswander had her eight students sounding out the words "fire," "wire" and "tire."

"It's phonemic awareness. It's really what our kids need," Rizzo said.