The halls of Irving School came alive Tuesday afternoon when parents and children arrived to meet their new teachers during a “sneak peak” before today’s official first day of school.

“I’m so excited!” first-grade teacher Michele Beitel said, throwing her arms wide to welcome one of her new students. “Do you want to come in and see your new classroom?”

“I love it,” said Beitel, in her 11th year of teaching. “I feel absolutely blessed to get to know a new group of students. It’s just an amazing job, to know you’re making a difference in the life of a child.”

Today is the first day of school for most of Bozeman’s 5,800 students – roughly 470 kindergartners start Tuesday.

“We’re excited they’re here,” said Rob Watson, Bozeman’s new superintendent.

It will be weeks before the official headcount of students. Yet at a time when many Montana school districts are losing students, Bozeman schools are full. So far, 2,816 kids are signed up for elementary schools, Watson said. That would exceed last year’s 2,731 September count. Bozeman High, which had 1,840 students last September, might be closer to 1,900. Those numbers can change as schools learn of students who have moved away without notification.

Students and parents will see many new faces in the Bozeman schools. Whittier Elementary has a new principal, Darren Schlepp, replacing retired Jerry Bauer.

Two schools have acting principals for one year: Patti Harrison at Hawthorne Elementary and Ken Gibson at Bozeman High.

Other changes this year — the Hawks Nest day care will be run by the YMCA. And preschool classes were moved from Hyalite Elementary to a vacant wing of Bozeman High to open up classrooms for more regular elementary students.

At Irving School, Principal Adrian Advincula was excited about the start of school – despite having a brand new baby at home and needing coffee to overcome some sleep deprivation.

“I love this part of the year because our community is coming back,” Advincula said.

Student-teacher Karlyn Clark, a Montana State University student whose grandmother used to teach at Irving, was excited about working with Beitel and teaching first grade.

“It’s in my blood,” Clark said. “I love the kids.”

Kids expressed more mixed feelings. Six-year-old Hayden Dratwick said he felt “pretty confused” about all the new people. Fifth-grader Yufu Yoshimura said he was happy to be back. “I will get to see all my friends, we get to learn.”

Ten-year-old Liam Rasch came to school wearing his Halloween costume, a robot, complete with a cardboard-box helmet covered in tinfoil. Liam said he felt “Kinda good, kinda bad. I don’t want to go back, because it’s school. But I want to go back because I miss my friends.”

Shelly Wunsch and Jeanne Korn, leaders of Parents of Irving Children, were excited to see Irving’s new natural playground nearly finished. Parents raised $14,000 to replace one aging wooden fort with a new natural play area. It features hills, logs, big rocks, trees and a wooden arch.

“It really allows kids to play where there is more than one way of using something,” unlike traditional playground equipment, Wunsch said. It encourages kids to “be so creative and use their imaginations.”

Parents plan next to raise money to replace the playground’s remaining fort with a newer, safer fort.

“I think it’s going to be great,” Korn said.

Gail Schontzler can be reached at gails@dailychronicle.com or 582-2633.

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