SCHOOL OFFICIALS in Prince George's County occasionally trot out a figure in public that never fails to shock: About 22 percent of ninth-graders are repeating the grade level, many of them two or three times. In fact, there are more than 3,000 "permanent freshmen" in Prince George's at the moment, of a total freshman enrollment of 14,000. A large number of these 16- and 17-year-old ninth-graders clearly will not graduate, as the county itself has said; that admission casts doubt on the credibility or methodology of the county's claimed high school graduation rate of nearly 87 percent.

Andre J. Hornsby, who resigned last week as school superintendent in Prince George's, correctly characterized ninth grade as a tripping point in school districts across the country, especially large urban ones with diverse populations of minority and foreign-born students, such as Prince George's. Youngsters whose reading or math skills have lagged starting in the early grades may have been promoted more or less automatically -- until they reach high school. There, as ninth-graders, they find the system suddenly much less forgiving, and many get stuck in a rut of academic failure that leads them to repeat grades, drop out and, often, run into problems with the law. The numbers may look bad in Prince George's -- and they are bad -- but the problem is national in scope.

One clear lesson is the importance of focusing on the youngest pupils -- in kindergarten and first grade -- and making sure they are reading at grade level by the time they reach second grade, so that they do not have to play catch-up later. To that end, Mr. Hornsby, in his two-year tenure as the county's schools chief, focused on developing all-day programs for 4- and 5-year-olds. In addition, the schools began screening fifth- and sixth-graders who have fallen significantly behind on reading skills in an effort to give them the remedial attention they need.

The repeating ninth-graders themselves are a tougher problem; many of them are expelled or suspended for disciplinary infractions before the schools can begin to address their academic shortcomings. The county's response has been to expand the capacity of an alternative high school in Cheverly. There youngsters can be helped to get back on track by more individualized attention from experienced teachers as well as by the active participation of parents who are made to sign a contract obligating them to take an active role in improving their children's performance at school. The county has also started offering all-day Saturday programs at a dozen or so schools, which have caught on quickly this year and are now attracting some 1,700 students (and counting) each week, more than half of them ninth-graders. In addition, school officials say they are determined to give struggling students more vocational and technical training options, as well as to channel more of them into high school equivalency programs open to youths once they turn 16, rather than having them repeat ninth grade endlessly.

The county is on the right track in recognizing that the more options and resources available to struggling students, the better.