FORTVILLE — Happy, excited, scared, nervous, tired.  Listed on the board at the front of LaTracy Bethea’s classroom were the feelings she guessed Mt. Vernon’s tiniest students would experience on the first day of school.

Bethea then watched as, one by one, her students slapped a smiley face on the board by the word that fit their emotions. Four of the little learners were happy; three excited; two were a bit scared. One student was nervous, another tired — 7 a.m. came early.

They must be pretty brave if seven of 11 first-time students were feeling happy or excited — not a bad average, Bethea thought.

Her students were among the 85 3- and 4-year-olds dropped off Monday for the launch of the Mini-Marauder Preschool at Mt. Vernon schools. This school year, for the first time, the school district offers an early learning academy to help beginning learners prepare for kindergarten.

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The youngsters spent much of Monday morning getting to know their classmates and exploring their new school. Teachers played name games, read books and told stories — anything to make the students, some who were going to school for the first time, comfortable.

Bethea read to her students “The Kissing Hand,” a children’s book about a young raccoon who is nervous about going to school for the first time. In the story, Chester’s mother kisses his palm and tells him to press it to his cheek and think “Mommy loves you” any time he misses home.

She passed out stickers with tiny hearts for her students to put on their own palms — a reminder they are loved.

Next door in Brenda Denny’s classroom, students gathered in a circle to meet their classmates. As Denny read their names aloud in a sing-song voice, little hands shot up in the air.

“Is there someone here named Jayden? Jayden, where are you?” Denny sang. Just then, Jayden Lee gave a thumbs up.

Mt. Vernon administrators and teachers worked all summer to prepare to launch the full-day preschool focused on blending learning and play.

When the district moved its administration center to the former Fortville Elementary building last year, much of the space wasn’t being utilized. Administrators hoped launching the preschool would generate income — parents pay $125 weekly to enroll their child full-time — and fill some of the underutilized space in the administration building.

Now, it houses five preschool classrooms filled with students from 7 a.m. to 6 p.m. Monday through Friday. Each classroom is staffed with a teacher and an assistant. In the afternoon, extra hands come in to help with the late afternoon shift.

Activities focus on literacy, writing and motor skill development. Other activities include music, science experiments and housekeeping, said Laura Durig, the corporation’s special education and preschool director.

The program aims to prepare children for kindergarten and beyond by allowing them to grow socially, emotionally and academically in a classroom setting and at their own pace, Durig said.

Bethea, who has taught preschool for 13 years in other communities, is eager to see what the school year brings for her classroom of youngsters. Early childhood learning is imperative in preparing kids for a life full of learning, she said.

“They’re so fun at this age. They’re sponges; they absorb everything,” she said. “This is great for this community. Learning can start.”

Outside, teacher Brandi Delp watched as her students took a break from the classroom to hit the playground. She knows some of the concepts she’ll teach during the school day this year, from sharing to waiting your turn, will be as just as important outside the classroom, she said.

Delp has taught 3- to 5-year-olds for a decade; Monday, as she watched them dash from the swingset to the merry-go-round, she said she loves watching them discover what’s around them.

“We’ve got a lot of little explorers in our class,” she said. “To them, everything is exciting. They look at things in a way adults can’t.”

She’s excited about the potential the preschool creates for students, who will get to drive much of their learning experience, and to make the youngsters feel safe and excited about school.

“I can’t wait to see how far this program goes,” Delp said.

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Samm Quinn is a reporter at the Greenfield Daily Reporter. She can be reached at 317-477-3275 or