After one year of kindergarten, Ronnie Martin, 6, Hope Williams, 6, and Steve Poindexter, 5, lagged behind their peers. Ronnie didn't know the alphabet, Steve couldn't count to 20, and Hope wasn't able to recite a four-line nursery rhyme. These may not sound like weighty problems, but at the Hull Elementary School in Benton Harbor, Mich., they are not taken lightly. Last June Ronnie, Hope and Steve did something most parents would have thought impossible: They flunked kindergarten.

They were not alone. The Benton Harbor public school system flunked enough preschoolers to fill a lecture hall at Harvard. A staggering 105 out of 666 kindergarten pupils failed—as did 180 of the system's 744 first graders and 174 out of 673 second graders.

The mass failing provoked some criticism from parents, educators and psychologists around the nation. But James Hawkins, 43, Benton Harbor's feisty school superintendent, insists that the crackdown was overdue. For several years Benton Harbor students have finished last in statewide achievement tests. This year the district's 8,734 students scored at the bottom again, sinking to an embarrassing 40 percent below Michigan's average. Says Hawkins, who arrived in 1978, "We had to do something. We couldn't just keep promoting children who hadn't mastered the basic skills in reading and mathematics."

Hawkins argues that the practice of "social promotion," even of 5-year-olds, is dangerous. "I'm convinced that promoting kids beyond their ability compounds the problem," he says, admitting that some teachers also haven't done their jobs. "Rather than catching up later on, the students fall further behind. They get discouraged and drop out as soon as they can."

That pattern has been particularly pronounced in Benton Harbor, an economically depressed community of 15,000, where many of the adults are high school dropouts and unemployment is nearly 25 percent. The schools' predicament has also been aggravated by racial problems. In 1978 a federal judge ordered the district to desegregate. Many whites fled, resulting in the loss of tax moneys and in the voluntary busing of two out of three pupils from many far-flung neighborhoods. "Kids in Benton Harbor are going to have less of everything," admits Hawkins sadly. "Having a diploma and not being able to read or spell isn't going to save them. But competency in basic competitive skills will." To this end, Hawkins, with the cooperation of parents, teachers and other professionals, developed the "minimal skills" program for kindergarten, first-grade and second-grade students. To pass kindergarten, for example, students must master 20 "skills," including printing their names, recognizing basic colors, and reciting a four-line nursery rhyme.

Some experts warn that such early screening can be harmful. "There's a wealth of evidence to prove that even small children are aware of the stigma of failure and the kinds of prejudicial labels adults use," claims Herbert Dolezal, a Northeastern Illinois University psychologist. "Kids can be terribly traumatized and ostracized if the situation isn't handled well." Steve Poindexter's mother, Donna, supports Hawkins' program but had doubts at the final school assembly last June when achievement awards were presented. "Steve cried all day because he didn't win anything," she says.

Hawkins insists the program isn't punitive. "We let kids know that we don't think they're dumb," he says, pointing out that summer school courses give the children a chance to catch up with their classmates. "My parents always had high expectations of me," says the Western Michigan U-educated Hawkins, the son of a Mississippi couple who never went beyond grade school. "I think that's the key." (He is married and has two daughters, 13 and 25.) Surprisingly, Hawkins finds some of his strongest support among the parents of children he has held back. Says Carol Martin, Ronnie's mother, "I didn't graduate from high school, and somewhere along the line I should have been held back. I think it's easier to do when the kids are young."