The first day of school can offer a mix of anticipation and trepidation for any student.

But those feelings may be heightened for kindergarten students.

Elementary school staff members take that into account and try to make the first day as comforting for kindergartners as possible, said Elaine Clay-McLaughlin, J.C. Sommer Elementary School principal.

"Probably the biggest challenge with kindergarten students is just their learning how school works," Clay-McLaughlin said.

"Their excitement is phenomenal, but the simplest things, like lining up, taking their turn at the water fountain, putting their book bag in their locker space, are brand-new experiences for students," she said.

The school year opened Aug. 22 in the South-Western City School District, but for elementary school students, the start of school was staggered.

The first day for students in grades K-3 with last names beginning with A-G was Aug. 22 and students with last names H-O and P-Z had their respective first days the following two days.

All students reported to school on Aug. 27.

"For kindergarten, the staggered start allows our teachers to do a more one-on-one assessment of each of their students," Clay-McLaughlin said.

"If they had all 25 or 26 of their students starting school on the same day, it would be a lot tougher to do those assessments," she said.

The staggered start is beneficial for students as well, said Megin Cress, J.C. Sommer kindergarten teacher.

"It's just a little easier for them to acclimate to school with a smaller number of classmates the first day," she said. "All of the students are excited about the first day, but some are a little nervous and anxious."

Each South-Western elementary school offers two kindergarten-visitation events in the spring for parents.

"All five of the kindergarten teachers at our school are available at the visitation events to sit down with parents," Clay-McLaughlin said. "If a family can't make it to one of our visitation days, we'll make sure to schedule a time where they can come in and meet with us and get the general information they need to know about our school."

An open house also is held before the start of school so students can meet their teachers and become familiar with the building.

Much of the first day of kindergarten class involves simply getting students used to the routine they will follow, Clay-McLaughlin said.

Instead of going directly to their classroom, kindergarten students assemble in the school gym, she said.

"For some of the students, it might be a little too much expecting them to find their way to their classroom, even though they visited it during the open house," Clay-McLaughlin said. "So we have each of our kindergarten teachers lead and walk their students to their classroom."

Most youngsters seem to handle the first day in stride, Cress said.

"You have some tears, but most of them are really excited to be starting school," she said. "Some of them have already been in preschool or daycare, and that makes it a little easier.

"Even the ones who haven't been away from their mom or dad before seem to find it easy to make friends right away. Kindergartners are really social."

As they arrive for the first day of school, parents and students are greeted by teachers and other school staff.

"We have staff from the District Services Center assigned to spend the morning at each elementary school," said Sandy Nekoloff, the district's executive director of communications. "There's at least one staff member at the DSC at each school."

J.C. Sommer had about eight people on duty near the entrance to school to welcome students and their parents on the first day.

"If parents need questions answered, or a student needs help knowing where they want to go, or if a parent or student's a little upset and needs some comforting, we want to be there for them," Clay-McLaughlin said.

Each school features its own special way to welcome students to school, Nekoloff said.

At J.C. Sommer, students could have a "selfie" photo taken while holding a giant frame with their class year emblazoned on it.

The picture would identify kindergartners as members of the class of 2031.

Among the parents bringing their kindergartners to the first day of school Aug. 24 at J.C. Sommer was Lindsey Fuller.

Her daughter, Khloe Smith, 5, is her first child attending school.

"It's a little bittersweet," Fuller said. "I'm so excited about Khloe starting kindergarten, but it's still hard to watch her walk through that door."

Khloe was eager to start kindergarten, Fuller said.

"She's really looking forward to making some new friends," Fuller said. "She went to preschool, so she's taking it all in stride. Me -- not as much."

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