Utah school districts are preparing to offer educational programs to handicapped children 3-5 years of age as responsibility shifts from Social Services to the State Office of Education.

Up to 1,250 children will be added to school rolls, said John Killoran, specialist in the education office for preschool programs and programs for severely handicapped .Social Services has been providing services to approximately 650 children, Killoran said. But he predicted that bringing services closer to home in some instances will increase the demand.

The shift from Social Services to the school program reflects increasing emphasis on an early start for education of handicapped youngsters. Several federal legislative actions have progressively increased the requirements for providing both medical and educational intervention for these children.

Killoran said most of the state's 40 school districts already are involved in preschool programs for the handicapped to some degree. Some districts will have to develop new programs, others will contract with existing private agencies to provide the services.

Rural districts, which are likely to have fewer eligible students and which have greater distances between communities, may have more problems putting together programs to meet the needs of their children, Killoran said. He expected some rural districts to pool resources in cooperative programs. In some areas of the state, in-home services may prove most practical.

All districts actually have until the 1990-91 school year to have programs in place. Some will start this fall.

At present, districts are surveying their areas to find children who qualify for the special educational services, he said.

"They are working through established referral networks - doctors, day-care centers and Social Services." Radio, television and other news media also have been enlisted to identify qualified children. The Department of Health's infant program also is a source of information regarding handicapped youngsters, Killoran said.

Adding the 3-5-year-olds to the state's special education program will strain the ability in some districts to find qualified teachers, he said. Some districts already are having difficulty finding enough special education teachers to deal with school-aged handicapped children.

In-service training and a new certification program will prepare early education teachers to fill this special role.

In Cache County, teachers who had been associated with a Utah State University program have been absorbed by the school districts.

Approximately $3.1 million in federal and state funds is available to support preschool special education, Killoran said.

Local districts have complained that the money will not cover the costs of the required services. Handicapped youngsters call for small groupings and a low teacher/student ratio. Aides will help fill classroom needs.

In some districts, individual teachers will have to deal with children who have a wide variety of handicapping conditions. In larger districts, it may be possible to group children according to the nature of handicaps.

Approximately 30 private providers who have dealt with handicapped preschoolers will lose students unless they contract with their local districts, Killoran said. He anticipated that about half of the providers would make those links with the public education system.

Killoran said he expects the next few years will see considerable research and experimentation to try to determine how educational services can best be provided for the preschool youngsters.