Alcott Elementary School first-grade teacher Jim Ledford and his 23 students got their groove on March 1 as they held a CD release party.

As part of a culminating project that includes every subject area, the class had a 1960s-themed celebration for the release of "A Smile is Contagious" in the school's library, 7117 Mount Royal Ave.

Ledford, a songwriter, said he enjoys teaching his students through music and drama.

He wrote all the songs on the CD that the students recorded a few weeks ago at Blue Moon Studios in Columbus.

The songs help teach students lessons and include titles such as "Making a Friend" "Continent Song," "Did You Vote Today," "We Are Different," and "Doubles Ditty."

"In the beginning of the year, I start teaching the kids songs," Ledford said. "Some of them are math songs, some are reading, some are character-education songs."

By January, he said, the class has learned about 20 songs.

"Every kid has a solo on the CD," Ledford said. "I want every kid to feel special and every kid to feel like they can get up in front of an audience and sing. And, believe it or not, every year they do. So that's pretty exciting for me."

To cover the cost of all that goes into making and producing the compact disc, the class hosts a CD release party and invites parents, grandparents and anyone the students want to attend.

They perform the songs on the disc, and afterward each student has a job, such as being a cashier to sell the CD for $10 or passing out food to guests.

"We sell our CDs and that's how we pay for the project," said Ledford, who has taught at Alcott for 15 years.

Leslie Schultz Warthman, maternal nana and guardian of first-grader Bella Cuahuey, said Ledford has transformed her shy 7-year-old.

"She is now someone who confidently participates in class activities, instead of letting her anxieties isolate her and continue disconnecting her from necessary interaction," she said. "Her self-esteem was immediately noticeably improved when her vocal talent was recognized as special by Mr. Ledford. It took the teacher's encouragement, on several occasions, for her to step outside her comfort zone. It opened her up to enjoy contributing her personal gifts whenever possible."

Warthman said Ledford is persuasive in a soft-spoken way.

"He has a calming quality that has a positive impact when he is correcting someone's mistakes," she said. "His zany puppet characters, on the other hand, help kids relate better with each other. They are introduced to both good and bad personas that teach how different people react in real-life situations."

Schultz Warthman said it lets each student draw their own conclusions but every puppet encounter makes an obvious preferred result clear by showing what happens to those who make good choices versus what happens to those who make bad ones.

Ledford has a collection of about 60 puppets inside a portable stage the class calls Puppetville.

First-grader Cameron Schafer said he likes a puppet named Ralph the best.

"He's a trickster," Cameron said.

He said one of his favorite parts of Ledford's class is meeting new puppets.

Classmate Christopher Aaron said he likes all the animals in the classroom.

"I like Rosie, the tarantula," he said. "It was my first time holding a real-life tarantula."

Christopher said everyone in his class is very nice.

Ledford said he has offered the CD project for the past 15 years, with a different theme every year.

"My philosophy is, learning needs to be fun and exciting," he said.

Ledford has been an educator for 30 years, and he teaches guitar lessons on the side.

Before joining Alcott, he taught at Westerville's Haw-thorne Elementary School.

He said he spent the first two years of his career in his hometown of Cleveland.

"I wanted to coach at a high school," he said. "I was put in an elementary field experience and liked it. My mom was a kindergarten teacher."

Ledford said first grade is very important for students, because it sets the stage for reading, math and social skills.

In introducing his students at the concert, he said, first-graders are "happenin' and hip."

"Can you dig it?" Ledford said.