CHICAGO -- Children leave their apartments at the Robert Taylor Homes each morning by winding down dark, narrow stairwells marked with the angry graffiti of frustrated lives. They emerge into the daylight from the country's largest, poorest housing project, walk across an empty field and push through the doors at Beethoven Elementary School, where the walls have recently been pasted with pictures of Thanksgiving turkeys.

The children retrace their steps at the end of the school day, homework papers clutched in hand, climbing back up to the metal doors that close them into their apartments for the night.

Their walk across the empty field and back each day is as repetitive as their movement through the school system and the frequency with which they drop out, become pregnant and remain in the housing project. The pattern seems as intractable as the social forces that sustain poverty in generation after generation.

A program introduced this year is attempting to break the cycle of generational underachievement at Robert Taylor, where the average age of a new mother is 16 and more than 90 percent of the residents receive public assistance.

The program -- known unofficially as the Beethoven Project -- has set out to prepare the children of the kindergarten class of 1993 by locating them literally before they are born, and giving first their mothers, then the children, help that will equip them to succeed when it becomes their turn to push through the doors at Beethoven to begin their schooling.

"Imagine the potential," said Gina Barclay McLaughlin, director of the program, known officially as the Center for Successful Child Development. "I can't say how successful we're going to be . . . . The need is much more than we ever anticipated." But even the conception of the Beethoven Project "is a powerful statement," she said, "because it's a group everybody has given up on."

The school sits in the midst of the housing complex, a two-mile stretch of 28 brick buildings, each 16 stories tall, a concrete city of 4,230 apartments and 20,000 poor people living on top of each other. They are isolated from the rest of the city by a highway on one side and a railroad on the other. From a half-dozen of these buildings come the 786 children who attend Beethoven Elementary.

"I've taught mothers and taught their children," said Jean Bates, who has taught kindergarten at Beethoven for more than two decades. "A lot of people want to get out, but there's no way out. You need an education, and a lot haven't finished high school."

Using $1.2 million provided by the Department of Health and Human Services and the Harris Foundation, associated with Chicago philanthropist Irving B. Harris, the Beethoven Project will provide a wide range of preventive social programs over the next five years for children born in the school's attendance area since January. Some of the people providing that help will be residents of the project, former teen-age mothers who have been hired as counselors.

First the eligible children must be identified -- a group that will eventually number about 150 -- within weeks after they are conceived; prenatal care will be given to their mothers; health care and screening will be provided for the babies once they are born. Later the program will teach the mothers how to help their children develop, open a school for the children when they become toddlers and place them into Head Start programs when they turn 3.

If all goes according to plan, these children will enter kindergarten at age 5 virtually as well-prepared for school as their middle-class peers.'You Can Live a Life of Regrets'

The poverty at Robert Taylor is unusually concentrated, but the outlook for its children is not unique. The young people here have been born into an entire generation who, more than any previous group, are burdened by circumstances that make them likely to fail in school and society. Educators warn that as many as a third of the 40 million schoolchildren in the country are at risk of failing.

While there is much debate about how to teach these children once they arrive at school, there is a consensus that the best hope for helping them lies in programs that begin long before school age. Here at the Robert Taylor Homes, where the problems seem insurmountable -- the median annual family income is $5,190, and more than two-thirds of the households are headed by single mothers -- social service workers will seek to set a new standard for effective early intervention and prevention.

This "group that everybody's given up on" is now giving birth to the group that everyone in the Beethoven Project will be watching -- the kindergarten class of 1993, the high school graduating class of 2006. Most members of that class will be born over the next 10 months; a few are already here.

One is Ciara Lee, born in October to 16-year-old Libra Bolden. Libra, who also has a 2-year-old daughter, lives with her mother, two sisters and a brother in a three-bedroom apartment on the 11th floor of a Robert Taylor building.

Libra's mother, Jo Ann Bolden, who was herself a teen-age mother, supports all seven in the household on a $457 monthly welfare check.

"I started having children too young," said Jo Ann Bolden, 35. "It's hard. You can live a life of regrets." She nodded at Libra, sitting quietly at the kitchen table feeding her new baby. "I'm very angry with her. I've been there and I know it's hell."

A boy named Nolan will also be a member of the class of '93. He is the second child of an 18-year-old girl who lives with her boyfriend and his mother and tells people she is determined to return to high school because she wants to be a singer.

The class will include a baby boy born in mid-November, still unnamed a few days after his birth, who is the third child of an 18-year-old girl who has left high school and lives with her mother in the housing project.

It is already clear that these children will be typical in their kindergarten class: third-generation residents of Robert Taylor, born to young, single mothers, most of whom have not finished high school.

"We've had three generations of poverty, each generation impacting the other," said McLaughlin. "We have got to do something about it or it will haunt us all. It already is. It's a time bomb."

If successful, the Beethoven Project will send children to the school whose experience differs markedly from that of the children now occupying the kindergarten desks. Most in this year's kindergarten class, say the teachers, have a very short attention span; some barely talk to their teachers; many struggle to use a pencil; one girl stares off in the distance while her teacher quizzes the class on the alphabet. She has a dozen brothers and sisters, and a mother in her late 20s, her teacher said.

"We have to stop and teach everything from the beginning," said Bates of the current class. "Colors, how to say their full name."

"Mentally, they are capable," said Clara McWhorter, another kindergarten teacher at Beethoven. "You have to teach them how to act, how to tie their shoes. I have to get them ready to go outside. Half of them don't know how to zip and button."

Out of 55 kindergarten students, only 16 were fully prepared for first grade at the end of the last school year, the two teachers said.

The problems that become obvious when students arrive at Beethoven's door often pile up over the next eight years, with students averaging only five to six months of academic growth each school year, according to principal Gloria Dawson. Test scores for the school, among the lowest in Chicago, show third-grade students testing a year and a month behind grade level in reading. By eighth grade, they are testing a year and seven months behind.

Fourth-grade teacher Christine Scott said about half of her 31 students are working at grade level and the rest are behind, with one boy reading at the first-grade level.

And eighth-grade teacher William Jordak, while pointing out several high achievers in his class, added that, "in the upper grades . . . it's a tough battle because they come in in pretty bad shape, and it's getting worse."

At DuSable High School, attended by the graduates of Beethoven and other elementary schools serving Robert Taylor, the dropout rate is 60 percent.

Academic problems both stem from and cause the hardships at home; the two facets of life become inextricably tied.

"We see this in our schools: The girl is 12, she has a baby. Her mother is 24, she is a grandmother. Her mother is 36, she is a great-grandmother. It is a cycle we want to break," said Doris Williams, a Chicago public schools administrator, at a recent meeting to introduce Beethoven parents to a pregnancy prevention program. Many of the babies die, she said. "Those who live . . . don't develop properly. These are the children that can't sit still, that have academic problems."

What should schools be doing for these children? How can Beethoven Elementary avoid losing whatever gains are made with the kindergarten class of 1993?

Debates over strategy center on a tactical and philosophical issue: whether children whose circumstances put them at risk of failure are placed at further risk when they are treated differently than others in the classroom.

"We're framing the issue in the wrong way," said Asa G. Hilliard, a professor of education at Georgia State University who has studied and written on the issue. "Developing a nomenclature that students are 'at risk,' that the risk is internal to the child, his family or community, that is what places the child at risk . . . . What they're really at risk for is not receiving the same quality of input that their peers will receive."

That interpretation, said Hilliard, leads to two conclusions. First, disadvantaged students should be given early educational opportunities like Head Start and the Beethoven Project. "You're trying to do for those children what would be normal opportunities" for middle-class children, he said.

Second, while many others maintain that traditional remediation and tracking are the best way to help disadvantaged students, Hilliard contends that these students will succeed if they are exposed to the same high-quality teaching and high expectations available to suburban youngsters.

At Beethoven, Dawson has tried to raise expectations by changing the school name to "Beethoven Academic Center." She has tightened discipline, ordering a student arrested for assault recently when he tossed his lunch tray at a teacher. And she has done away with the common practice of grouping children by ability, or tracking.

"I believe in heterogeneous grouping," she said. "Kids learn very easily that if they're in the 'red birds,' they are the outs. The self-fulfilling prophecy tends to prevail."

Teachers disagree about this, but they tend to agree -- and they are supported by national studies of early childhood education programs -- that there is great promise in the Beethoven Project and a handful of similar programs around the country.

Nevertheless, the project must overcome formidable obstacles, including distrust many Robert Taylor residents feel for outsiders. To minimize that distrust, the Beethoven Project has relied heavily on a team of six women known as "family advocates," all of them residents either of Robert Taylor or the nearby community. The women were teen-aged mothers, and many were living on welfare until they were hired.

Now these women, who earn an annual salary of $9,500, have become the backbone of the operation.

"I wanted the job because I was tired of public aid," said Phyllis Holmes, who has lived in and out of Robert Taylor most of her life. "I had my first son the day I graduated from high school. My second was born a year later," she said. Since then, Holmes, 32, has attended two years of college.

Holmes, who is responsible for 16 women and their babies, talks fondly about her group, referring with pride to "my twins," babies born in May to a drug-addicted mother.

"Most of my participants live in my building, and I know them," she said. "I had to get this rapport, so I talked and joked. Now they have coffee ready when they know I'm coming."

The family advocates walk up and down the corridors of the buildings, recruiting women who are pregnant or have just delivered babies. In the year since the program began, they have enrolled 89 mothers. Those whose babies were born before September will receive services but are considered a pilot group; only babies born since September, the class of 1993 and beyond, will be included in a research project comparing their progress to that of others not receiving services.

Holmes and the other family advocates visit each "participant" regularly, talking with her about how to feed the baby, hold it, bathe it and help it develop properly. They take photographs so she can keep an album documenting the child's first steps and words, making the mother more aware of developmental stages.

"We don't try to push our values on them," said advocate Bobbie Burke. While she may prefer that the mothers breast-feed their babies, for example, she does not argue when most of them choose the bottle.

"I never would tell them, 'You're doing this wrong.' I don't like to intimidate my participants."A Statement of Commitment

The staff works out of an office on the second floor of one of the buildings in the housing project, a decision that itself became a statement of commitment to the community, given its reputation for security and safety problems. An entire floor was gutted and refurbished into administrative offices, medical examination rooms for babies, their siblings and mothers, a baby-sitting area for infants, play areas equipped with toys, and cooking and lounge areas for parents.

The project -- administered by the Ounce of Prevention Fund, an Illinois social service organization, and the Chicago Urban League -- has gone to great lengths to overcome the perception that it is one more social program that has come into the housing project with grand promises that may go unfulfilled. But skepticism persists.

"I don't see how the programs are going to help the new babies," said Jo Ann Bolden. "If the program was working with the parents, the young ladies wouldn't keep making the same mistakes."

"I'm guardedly optimistic," said Beethoven teacher William Jordak. "Often these programs become vehicles for the people who run them . . . . they lose track of the people we're trying to help."

Working against the long-term impact of the program is the geographic and social isolation at Robert Taylor, which many see as a serious impediment to the residents' upward mobility. The boundaries of the complex -- State and Federal, 55th and 39th streets -- largely define the parameters of opportunity for children here.

Teachers say their children rarely go outside the immediate neighborhood. "Going downtown" means walking a block east on 47th Street. Many children have never ridden on Chicago's subway or visited the zoo or the library. The Head Start program organizes field trips so children can see an airport.

There are few middle-class role models in the neighborhood, and children see fewer than 10 percent of the residents in the complex go off to jobs each day.

But working in favor of the program is what teachers and social workers say are the parents' high aspirations for their children, hope against odds that the next generation will break the pattern and succeed in school and life.

"The majority of the people in Robert Taylor are just like us," McLaughlin said. "They want the same things for their children. They made mistakes, but they want people to believe in them. They want another chance."

Their second chance, as they see it, rests with their children.