Kathy Lariscy remembers her misgivings when her son's kindergarten teacher recommended placing him in a transitional class, rather than promoting him to first grade last year.
Even so, she recalls his fidgeting at school, and the trouble he had coordinating his fingers for writing.
"The main reason he was put into the class was that he was immature for his age," said Lariscy, who has taught in Monrovia for 20 years and will teach one of the transitional classes next year. "But I had to really think hard about it. I was afraid he'd be teased, I was concerned about his feelings. He'll be 19 when he graduates (from high school)."
She has since decided the extra year was worthwhile.
"I really believe now that if he'd gone ahead to first grade it would have squashed his spirit," she said of her son, now 7 1/2. "He would have constantly struggled or possibly been held back. It was just a matter of him growing up a little bit."
Transitional First Grade, called T-1 for short, is a full-day program for children who teachers decide are not prepared, in terms of ability and maturity, to succeed in first grade. The program, described as extended kindergarten, involves a less rigid structure and less formal instruction than the first grade.
Monrovia created T-1 with the idea of giving children "the gift of time" to develop physically, emotionally and intellectually for the academic rigors of first grade, said Richard Hill, district director of instructional services.
A pilot program this year at Monroe Elementary School was so successful that 125 students in the district's five schools will be enrolled in T-1 classes this fall. The Monrovia Unified School District expects to have 540 students in first grade next year.
"Way down the road this is going to cut down the drop-out rate," said Hill. "It's not failure. We're exposing them to new concepts."
The district is in the midst of redesigning its curricula for kindergarten through second grades at a time when the state Department of Education is examining education in the lower grades.
A state task force released a report last year declaring that "too often children ages four through six are receiving inappropriate instruction" and recommended that schools try harder to accommodate the needs of students.
An advisory the department sent to school districts this month noted that "in recent years . . . programs for young children have become increasingly academic and less appropriate developmentally."
But state Department of Education officials would rather see districts accommodate the children within the existing grade structure, and they are concerned with the increasing popularity of transitional classes.
"However you define it, it adds up to an additional year in school," said Susan Thompson, an administrator in the child development division.
The department opposes holding children back from the first grade because "the changes that occur at ages 4 to 6 are so dramatic and rapid," she said, adding that another factor is possible damage to a child's self-esteem.
According to Carol Fox, elementary curriculum consultant with the county Office of Education, about a quarter of the 74 school districts with elementary schools in the county have similar transitional programs, including Azusa, Long Beach and Torrance.
"It seems to be working, but we're still evaluating," said Clinton Boutwell, assistant superintendent for educational services with the Azusa Unified School District. About 25% of first-grade age children receive the "gift of time" in the district, which formally launched its transitional classes two years ago.
Monrovia school board President Christine Goudy said transitional classes are designed to help children who develop at a slower pace.
Pointing out that students who might drop out of school can be identified as early as second grade, she said, "How much better to identify them earlier."
Mary Peterson, instructional aide in the pilot T-1 class who has worked with low-performing third-graders in the district, also praised the program for targeting the children early.
"I've seen older kids who were discouraged," she said. "It's so hard to work with 8-year-olds already down on themselves and convince them they're really OK."
Hill agreed that "if kids are subjected to heavy academic work and they're not ready for it, it builds in frustration, failure, and their self-image is shot."
Parents are consulted when assessing a child's "readiness" for promotion, and must consent to placing the child in a transitional class rather than the first grade.
A district handbook on the program lists characteristics a typical child who should be placed in a transitional class might exhibit, including poor muscle control, emotional immaturity, short attention spans, difficulty communicating with words and frequent displays of frustration.
Many are simply young. According to Monroe T-1 teacher Margie Kooiman, two-thirds of the 24 students in her pilot class have birthdays after June.