District officials are urging parents to enroll 3- and 4-year-olds in early childhood programs and to register them as soon as possible so that city officials can better plan for how many children to accommodate.

Citing research showing the benefits of early childhood education, School Superintendent Paul L. Vance said at a news conference last week that more parents should take advantage of the programs.

"There's a clear and obvious connection between a child's ability to succeed in later life and early childhood programs," Vance said. "These are marvelous opportunities free of charge for the children of the District of Columbia."

Early childhood programs are provided by the school system, city parks and recreation department, private providers and others. The programs include pre-kindergarten and Head Start, which is for children from low-income families.

The programs offered by the school system are free and run during the hours of the regular school day. The other providers' programs vary. Many of the private providers charge for their programs, and the city offers a limited number of vouchers to reduce the costs for low-income families.

City and school officials said they are trying to coordinate those services better and eventually hope to offer a more uniform curriculum citywide.

They want parents with children in those age groups to go to their local public schools as soon as possible to register for the classes. Doing so, they said, will allow them to determine locations where more services are needed and will allow them to hire the proper amount of staff.

Officials said that parents with children who will be 2 years and 9 months old by December are eligible to register for early childhood programs.

The school system is also asking parents of 5-year-olds to register those children now for kindergarten, as a way to help plan.

Mary Gill, who oversees early childhood programs for the school system, said officials are expanding the number of children who can be accommodated in early childhood programs.

She said the system, which now enrolls 4,313 3- and 4-year-olds, will have room for an additional 400 youngsters next year. In some D.C. public schools, early childhood programs quickly fill to capacity, while others have space.

School and city officials said they plan to go door to door and distribute fliers to encourage enrollment in the early childhood programs.

"Parents don't know the programs exist," said Barbara Ferguson Kamara, executive director of the city's early childhood office. "Sometimes families don't have the resources to pay" for the private programs, she added.

City officials hope to expand the availability of programs and obtain more funding by placing more children who meet eligibility requirements in Head Start, which is federally funded, as opposed to pre-kindergarten, which is locally funded. Currently, they said, a number of children who are eligible for Head Start are in pre-kindergarten programs.

In 2000, 4,247 3- and 4-year-olds were eligible for Head Start in the District, and 2,973 were enrolled, according to Deborah Lyons, director of the Center for Applied Research and Urban Policy at the University of the District of Columbia.