It didn't take much time for Sirena Pino to find a playmate at her Head Start class. After two days at the federally funded preschool, 5-year-old Sirena giggled uncontrollably at the antics of boisterous Michelle Lloyd, a dark-headed cherub busily entertaining classmates with colorful hand puppets stuffed deep into both hands.

"My baby sister can go potty now," Sirena bragged, for no apparent reason."I can go potty, too, like Sirena, because she's big like me," Michelle added, while munching on the day's snacks of raw broccoli and cucumber slices dipped in salad dressing.

The two played with puppets, painted pictures and sang songs with some 15 other children at the preschool at Brigham Young University. It is one of 10 centers housing the $3 million federal program for 684 poor children in the Mountainland Region.

At first glance, it looks as if the two girls are only playing.

But games involving coloring pictures, using building blocks and acting out imaginary stories lay a firm foundation for learning, said Diane Reynolds, who helps oversee what children are taught in the classes.

"People don't realize how much children learn from play," said Linda Lee, director of Mountainland Head Start Inc.

Playground and classroom games, even setting the table with plates and utensils, help develop motor skills, leading to stronger reasoning abilities. Children also develop self-confidence when they complete assigned tasks, she said.

And children need the early intervention. Head Start was founded some 30 years ago by the federal government to give children from low-income families a chance to get a social and educational jump-start. The program also targets parents so they become involved in the classroom and community.

Despite congressional debates about the long-term efficacy of Head Start and the accountability of those charged with running the classes, the U.S. Administration for Children and Families now spends more than $3 billion annually for Head Start classes for 800,000 children in rural and urban areas, as well as those who are reared in migrant farm-worker families.

At last count, some 4,200 3- to 5-year-old Utah students were served by 14 nonprofit organizations chosen by federal officials to operate the classes emphasizing early academic and social skills.

Grantees received a combined $18 million to pay for rent, building maintenance, materials for classes, transportation and wages for administration, staff and teachers. Regulators monitor grantees every three years to determine if the funds are being spent wisely and the mission of the program is being accomplished.

"One of the challenges is not having the funds for doing what you want to do," Lee said.

Her staff has turned to health professionals in the community - such as dentists and child therapists - who offer services at little or no cost.

For example, the program spent $30,656 on dental checkups and treatment for some 700 children last year. Nursing and dentistry students from BYU also work with the children.

If the care wasn't donated or discounted heavily, the bottom line for health care could have been three times more. "That's a lot of dental (care) we are talking about," Lee said, adding that volunteers have logged more than 59,000 hours helping children with such services and in the class-room.

Every bit helps the early development of a child - especially one who comes from a disadvantaged or unstable home, she said.

Melody Pedersen wistfully recalls a student in a Head Start class who confided he planned to teach his incarcerated father to wield words instead of a knife when emotions ran high. Earlier that year, Pedersen vowed to channel the boy's tendency to solve classroom conflicts with his fists to more peaceful approaches.

"It's shocking yet touching," said Pedersen, who now works in an administrative post at the central office. She enjoys her job but misses interacting with kids in the classroom.

"I really learned about children in Head Start," said Sandy Clark, an education coordinator. "I'd been to BYU, took all the classes, and those classes taught me about children, but I really learned here."

Recent studies indicate that children of all ethnic backgrounds who participate in Head Start or other comprehensive preschool classes have higher reading scores and are more likely to graduate from high school. They also are less likely to be held back a grade or placed in special education classes.

The Packard Foundation's Center for the Future of Children found the results by scouring more than 150 studies conducted by early education experts nationwide.

Esther Kresh, a researcher with the federal Head Start bureau, said studies have not proved conclusively that there are major long-term effects of the program. However, at least four comprehensive reviews of Head Start effects since 1976 shows immediate, substantial effects in self-esteem, intelligence and social behavior, she said.

The data also indicate that low-income children who have attended Head Start continue to have these advantages for about two years after they enter school when compared to low-income children who were not enrolled in the preschool.

"They were also physically healthier due to the medical, dental and nutritional components of Head Start," she said in a recent study.

Pam Parkin, health and nutrition coordinator at the 644-student Granite Head Start, believes the program teaches both the child and parent. She plans health checkups for children and works with social workers to plug parents into medical and government-funded support organi-za-tions for help.

"Kids do better when they are healthy," she said.

For example, she said, vision or hearing tests can be pivotal points in the early development of a child.

"If it is found they need glasses, they get them, and suddenly a whole new world is opened up to them," Parkin said. "Some of these kids are in so much pain with their teeth. They need $3,000 or $4,000 worth of dental work. When they get it, they can smile again."

Parents also are offered high-school equivalent and English classes at some programs. A good number of parents are encouraged to continue their education or job training after their children enter the program, she said.

Toni Smith is a good example. She became involved with Head Start 12 years ago when her first son enrolled. Now, as the transportation coordinator, she makes sure Mountainland Head Start students arrive at school and home safely.

Two weeks before the last day of school, her boy was killed in a traffic accident. She was devastated to realize she hadn't taken any photographs of him for about two years.

"His Head Start teacher, who also spoke at the funeral, brought me an album of about 20 pictures of him in class," she said. The students also planted a tree in his memory.

"My other son attended the same Head Start, and he was real proud of that tree. He would always say, `There's my brother Cody's tree,' " she said. "Head Start has really taught me the difference between baby-sitting and helping children grow."