School Superintendent Iris T. Metts's plan to improve the academic achievement of Prince George's County students focuses heavily on intensifying instruction to very young pupils to give them a stronger foundation in basic skills.

In her five-year academic proposal, which she will announce today, Metts prescribes reducing class sizes in kindergarten through third grade to 15 students, providing full-day kindergarten classes in every elementary school, extending class periods in elementary and middle schools, and developing more programs for at-risk students in the early grades.

Metts also wants to move all sixth-graders from elementary schools into middle schools with seventh- and eighth-graders, create two kindergarten-through-eighth grade Montessori schools and two alternative high schools for students with behavior problems, and encourage more students to take advanced placement and international baccalaureate classes.

"We have to give people hope that we're going to do things in the system," Metts said this week.

The 130,000-student school system ranks second to last in average scores on state exams. Metts has said she wants a six-point annual increase in average scores on the Maryland School Performance Assessment Program exams. She would be paid thousands of dollars in bonuses if she can get the county's average scores above the statewide average within four years.

Initial funding sources for many of her proposals are contained in her $1 billion operating budget request for next school year, a 14.4 percent increase over this year.

County Executive Wayne K. Curry praised Metts yesterday for wanting to improve academic performance and the administration of schools, but Curry said the county cannot afford the amount she is requesting.

"I think what she's done is painted a broad and hopeful picture of education in Utopia," said Curry. "But we're not going to spend money we don't have."

Metts's plan would create uninterrupted 120-minute blocks of language arts in kindergarten through third grade and 90-minute blocks for fourth-through-eighth grades, plus 60-minute blocks of math.

Metts wants to ensure that no reading or math class in kindergarten through third grade would have more than 22 students this fall, then decrease that number each year to a maximum of 15 per class by the 2004-05 school year.

"It's absolutely essential that we begin by helping the early childhood education, because by the time they get out of third [grade], they'll be confident in their ability to read and won't encounter obstacles every step of the way," School Board Vice Chairman Angela Como (Laurel) said.

Metts also wants to expand successful magnet programs and give students a choice of high schools with different academic focuses, such as science and technology, Junior ROTC, finance and tourism.

Improving special-education services, closing the academic achievement gap between black and Hispanic students and their white counterparts, and creating in-school suspension programs are also among Metts's goals.

Staff writer Tracey Reeves contributed to this report.