NAPLES — It’s the biggest day for the littlest students: The first day of kindergarten.

In an effort to make that transition a little easier, the Lakes Region School District launched a new program this year, open to incoming kindergartners who have never been to daycare or pre-K and were considered at-risk after screenings last spring.

The special three-week, half-day Jump Start program lets them figure out how to say goodbye to Mom and Dad, where to put their backpacks, how to sit on the blue spots on the carpet for reading time and, maybe, how to settle down when the teacher asks.

“I think it’s been amazing,” said Noreen Casey, one of the three kindergarten teachers working with the 17 students at Songo Locks School. Another 14 Jump Start students are at Stevens Brook Elementary School in Bridgton.

Without the program, these are the students who struggle the most in the first weeks of their school experience, needing the most attention from teachers and struggling just to get through every day.

“Now when they come in, they’ll be the leaders,” said teacher Jill Flagg.

 Jill Flagg holds Hannah Allen, 5, at Songo Locks School Thursday. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

Jill Flagg holds Hannah Allen, 5, at Songo Locks School Thursday. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

On Thursday, the next-to-last day of the program, the students came bounding off the school bus, quickly dropped off their backpacks in the cubbies and settled down at a table to begin playing with the dominoes, puzzles and other educational toys as the day began.

Parent Brianna Gagne said the program has made a huge difference to her shy guy, 4-year-old Ben. At the screening, she said, he wouldn’t even say anything for 45 minutes – “he absolutely shuts down around people,” she said. When the Jump Start program started, she was able to stay in the classroom with him for the first two days.

“He was terrified,” said Gagne, a mother of four and a former special education teacher. “But I was there to guide him and get him used to asking other people for things. By the third day I had to just leave, and he cried, but 45 minutes later he was OK.”

Now, it’s a quick hug and a kiss and Ben happily heads in to class.

“It’s been the best program. He’s so excited and he brings home his work and shows it to us,” she said.

Ashton Hutchins, 5, wears a big smile in his classroom at Songo Locks School on the next-to-last day of the new Jump Start program, aimed at helping youngsters who have never been to daycare or pre-kindergarten.

Ashton Hutchins, 5, wears a big smile in his classroom at Songo Locks School on the next-to-last day of the new Jump Start program, aimed at helping youngsters who have never been to daycare or pre-kindergarten. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

In the classroom, teacher Devin Fitzgerald is leading the children through a discussion of “creepy, crawly things,” part of the week’s bug theme. The kids are all sitting on their dots, raising their hands to be called on, and going through an exercise of looking each other in the eyes as they say good morning to each other.

The district decided to try the program this year after an incoming teacher who had done a similar class in Massachusetts recommended it, said district Assistant Superintendent Pat Hayden. A few other schools in Maine have similar multi-day programs, she said, but generally incoming kindergartners get only a single day to take a “practice” bus run and visit their new classroom before the first day of school.

Principal Cheryl Cline said the Jump Start students, who might have struggled and felt out of place, will now be leaders and that, in turn, will give them “a huge sense of accomplishment.”

“There’s a huge ripple effect,” she said.

At one of the tables, Bruce Morrison was busy building tables and couches out of a pile of dominoes. So far, he said, his favorite part of school is the playground. As the teacher calls out to get the students’ attention, he turns away quickly.

“Class! Class!” Fitzgerald sing-songs out. “Yes! Yes!” Morrison says in unison with the others.

“Class!” “Yes!”

“Claaaaaasss,” she draws out. “Yeeeessssss!”

And so it goes, smooth as silk.

Later, Morrison and a half-dozen other boys are tearing around the wood chips and playground equipment amid shrieks and laughter – but only after they walked through the hall with “voice level zero” and “marshmallow feet.”

“It’s been amazing,” Hayden said. “Their whole attitude about coming to school has changed.”