The first day of the 2013-2014 school year at St. Anne's Episcopal School marked the launch of the Middletown private school's new preschool program.

The student body at St. Anne’s Episcopal School included some younger faces than usual when the 2013-2014 school year kicked off on Wednesday.

That’s because the 11-year-old private school off Silver Lake Road launched a new preschool program this week, with more than a dozen 3-year-olds experiencing a structured learning environment for the very first time.

“This is something we’ve been working toward for a while, and we’re excited to finally be offering this program,” said Valerie White, the Head of St. Anne’s Lower School, which includes the preschool program, as well as another 150 students in pre-kindergarten through fourth grades.

Using a play-based learning approach, the new preschool is designed to begin toddlers on an academic journey by exposing them to organizational skills, like classifying and sorting, while also building their curiosity, White said.

“We’ve offered pre-kindergarten for 4-year-olds since the start, but one of the things we were finding was that children who came to us for kindergarten or first grade didn’t have the same learning experience as those who had been with us in our pre-K program,” she said. “So the idea was to begin providing children with additional learning support even earlier so we can help create better opportunities for individual success.”

The preschool program is available in full- or half-day increments for either three- or five-day weeks to better fit parent schedules, White said.

Tuition for the program runs from $3,950 to $7,430 depending on the hours and days each student will attend.

Staffing the new preschool classroom are new hires Missy Derabertis and Ashley Hartshorn, both of whom hold master’s degrees in elementary education.

Hartshorn previously taught at Lancashire Elementary School in the Brandywine School District, while Derabertis most recently ran the Little Scholars Academy out of her home in Townsend.

“I’m really honored and thrilled to be part of the wonderful community at St. Anne’s,” said Derabertis, who serves as the lead teacher. “I’m especially excited to be a part of this program, which I think is going to provide a great foundation to structured learning in a fun and nurturing environment.”

Parent Megan Whittaker, who already has two boys enrolled at St. Anne’s, said she was eager to sign her daughter Anna up for the program, especially after learning Derabertis would be her teacher.

“We’ve had a great experience at St. Anne’s over the last seven years and I’ve long been a proponent of them adding preschool,” she said. “Anna was enrolled at Little Scholars last year and they did an amazing job, so it was really a no brainer for me when I found out Mrs. Derabertis would be the teacher at St. Anne’s”

While St. Anne’s has expanded into preschool this year, it also has contracted its pre-kindergarten program from 28 slots to 14.

“We had been running two pre-K classes of 14 students each, but what we’ve seen in recent years is enrollment of only 7 or 8 kids in each classroom,” White said. “So it made more sense to combine the classrooms into one. While the classes were combined, we still have two teachers so the student-to-teacher ratio has not changed.”

White said limited slots for preschool and pre-kindergarten could be adjusted again in the future depending on enrollment trends.

“We have space to grow and it would be great if we got to a place where we had to expand,” she said. “But for now we’re focusing on innovative teaching and how we can continue to build upon our mission of developing lifelong learners who are ready to enter the world and take on new challenges.”

Total enrollment at St. Anne’s this year is 289 with 162 students in preschool through fourth grade, and another 127 students enrolled in grades 5 through 8.