The plunge from kindergarten into first grade can be traumatic, especially for children who are socially, emotionally, physically or intellectually immature, say Alexandria school officials. To help students who are not ready, the city schools are proposing to create a transitional first grade beginning this fall.

The program, the first in Northern Virginia, would give certain children an extra year to mature on various levels and develop basic skills necessary for reading and math without the stigma of flunking kindergarten and the tedium of repeating the same activities.

Being in the transitional first grade won't matter to children, and it shouldn't matter to adults if they don't attach their own feelings to it, said Shirley Urquia, director of primary education for the city's schools of who would head the proposed program. In fact, promoting immature children into first grade often creates new problems, Urquia said. "They end up playing catch-up all through and develop low self-esteem. It's not ego-building."

And the low self-esteem and sense of lagging behind may continue throughout the rest of elementary school. "They're feeling absolutely worthless by the time they're in third grade," Urquia said.

In recent years almost 10 percent of Alexandria's kindergarten students have been held back, officials said. The rate is about the same in neighboring Arlington and is about 6 percent in Fairfax.

The School Board will vote on the proposal for the pilot program on March 19. The program would be held in 10 of the city's 12 elementary schools and evaluated at the end of the first year. The proposal calls for hiring three teachers and three instructional aides at a total cost of $137,475. Class size would depend on need, but the maximum would be 15 students.

In the early 1970s Alexandria schools had transitional classes on a school-by-school basis depending on the number of students who needed extra help. The preprimary classes were disbanded by the end of the decade when it appeared they were becoming segregated, with many black students being retained in the remedial classes.

"There will be more black children than white children in the new program . The intent is not to segregate, it's to help children with a special need," Urquia said. "There will also be more boys than girls. I suppose somebody with a sexist bent would say that we were discriminating against boys." The academic needs of the children must be taken into account for this program, Urquia said.

A child who is not ready to enter first grade would not be able to follow a series of directions, understand number concepts or know primary colors, said Pam Walkup, a first grade teacher amd member of the committee that drafted the proposal.

Part of the readiness problem may be economic, said School Board Chairwoman Lou Cook. About half of the children entering kindergarten last fall attended a preschool, which can be fertile ground for learning social, conceptual and physical skills they would eventually pick up in the school system. Also, parents who read to their children and take them on trips offer learning experiences that financially strapped or disinterested parents cannot.