VIRGINIA BEACH, JAN. 1 -- Superintendent James Melvin wants the Virginia Beach School Board to approve a pilot program that would add a level between kindergarten and first grade for youngsters who need help with basic skills.

Melvin, who is in his first year as superintendent of the Virginia Beach schools, said he believes that the special assistance the pupils would receive at an early age could prevent them from falling behind and possibly keep them from dropping out of school as teen-agers.

The so-called transitional first grade would be for children who finish kindergarten without learning basic skills. Classes would be kept small, probably fewer than 18 pupils.

Standardized tests, teacher observation and discussions with parents would be used to judge whether a youngster needs the transitional program. Melvin favors giving parents veto power over placement in the program.

"When they're ready, they can be moved on into the first grade," Melvin said.

Only 13 of 140 school systems in Virginia have such transitional programs, most less than five years old. In Virginia Beach, about 470 children -- slightly fewer than 10 percent of the class -- are repeating kindergarten this year. With the same number next year, it would cost about $1.3 million to implement a transitional program.

But Melvin wants to test the program at a few schools in the 1988-1989 school year. He plans to present the proposal to the School Board soon.

Educators say the current system poses a dilemma. A pupil who must repeat kindergarten might feel like a failure and lose enthusiasm for school. A pupil lacking basic skills who is promoted to first grade may not develop needed skills and may drop further behind classmates.

Melvin noted that critics are not convinced that the transitional program protects children from the stigma of failure.