Tavis Thompson struggled all through kindergarten to count past 10 and pronounce all the letters in the alphabet.
By the end of the school year, he finally started getting it. But his mother, Tavia Thompson, was not convinced that he was ready for first grade. Her older son had trouble keeping up with the heavier workload, which included more homework, journal-writing and lots of spelling words. So the Greenbelt resident asked the Prince George's County school system to keep Tavis, 5, in kindergarten for another year.
"I couldn't imagine him going to the first grade," Thompson said. "I felt scared for him."
Instead, school officials encouraged her to enroll him in a new summer program for kindergarteners who otherwise would have repeated the school year. Last week, about 250 of them began the four-week session, which offers intensive math and reading instruction.
The program was established by schools chief Andre J. Hornsby, who maintains that holding back kindergarteners accomplishes more harm than good. In Prince George's this past school year, teachers and principals recommended about 500 of the system's 8,466 kindergarten students for "retention."
Under Hornsby's plan, even students who do not participate in the kindergarten summer school will advance to the first grade. In fact, Hornsby said he wants to reexamine retention at all elementary school grade levels.
"I don't believe in the retention of 5-year-olds," Hornsby said. "I think it's developmentally inappropriate. I think you can do a tremendous amount of psychological damage."
In response to tougher federal standards, including the expectation that students to pass standardized tests starting in third grade, many school districts, such as those in New York City and Florida, are forcing more students to repeat a grade. But the practice is controversial, especially regarding kindergarteners. Some other districts in the Washington region, including Montgomery, Anne Arundel and Loudoun counties, retain kindergarteners but say they try to keep the practice to a minimum.
Some researchers say that the stigma of repeating a grade at such a young age often leads to behavioral problems, poor grades and the increased likelihood of dropping out.
"Although it's tempting to think of it as quick solution for children who are struggling, sometimes it creates more problems than it solves," said Marilou Hyson, associate executive director for professional development for the D.C.-based National Association for the Education of Young Children.
Other educators say that some kids simply need extra time to grasp the academic and social skills required for first grade. They argue against what is commonly known as social promotion -- passing students on to the next grade even though they are ill-prepared.
"I think there's a lot to be said for giving kids the gift of an extra year," said Elizabeth L. Dershimer, director of undergraduate teacher education at Stetson University in Florida.
Many parents across the nation have bought into that theory, keeping their children out of kindergarten for a year even when they are old enough to enroll or requesting that their children repeat that level. There are other approaches: Some districts have extended the school year or have created transitional kindergarten years. Others, including Prince George's, offer full-day pre-kindergarten to better prepare students for the rigors of kindergarten.
And rigorous it is. With toughening national standards, the earliest school years have become more academic, making it more challenging for students to meet achievement benchmarks.
"Now we're pushing curriculum down, down, down. Kids are expected to write in kindergarten," Dershimer said. "It makes it even more tough on those kids."
Tavia Thompson said her son was not ready for kindergarten because he did not attend preschool or pre-kindergarten. When he got to kindergarten, he was younger than many of his classmates. So during the school year, she tried to give him extra help at home, such as playing an alphabet instruction DVD during breakfast each morning.
"It just wasn't clicking -- the letter sounds, the number sequences," she said.
On the third day of summer school at James H. Harrison Elementary School in Laurel, teacher Dana Crisman sat on the carpeted floor surrounded by her kindergartners. The goal of the math lesson was to place events in the right order. Crisman asked what they did in the morning. One said he ate breakfast. What next? she asked.
"Then you come to school," Tavis said before she could call on him.
She asked what they did after school. The answers: play with friends, brush your teeth, go to sleep.
"Nobody eats dinner?" she asked. "Who eats dinner?"
Tavis raised his hand.
To test whether they had grasped the concept of sorting items, Crisman pulled out a basket of plastic bears and separated them by size and color -- small and large, green, yellow, red and blue. She passed the basket around, asking each student to pull out a bear and match it with the correct group of bears.
Tavis picked a blue bear and plopped it down next to all the other blue bears.
For kids in the summer program, the school day runs from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. at four locations. Class sizes are small -- no more than 15 students per teacher. The price tag: about $300,000, not including the technology, said Robert E. Beery, supervisor of alternative education programs for the school system.
On a recent day, teacher Jennifer Gonder supervised five students as they sat at a table taking a computerized test using software designed by the California-based LeapFrog SchoolHouse, an educational technology company.
"Touch the picture that does not go with the others," the voice on the mini-computer instructed. Shawn Hamilton had to choose among pictures of a key, a fork and a lock. He picked the lock.
"Which one begins with the same sound as mud?" the computer asked. Shawn used a pointer to tap a picture of a mop.
After a few minutes, Shawn took off his headphones. "I finished," he shouted.
"You did it? Was it fun, was it easy?" Gonder asked.
"Too easy," Shawn said.