As the Beatles' song "Penny Lane" played, teacher Sneh Sachdeva quickly adjusted graduation caps made of construction paper and yarn and worn by her students.
"I'm so nervous I can't even breathe," the teacher said as the group of 4- and 5-year-olds began the first commencement ceremony of their lives.
Sachdeva's students were among more than 100 preschoolers who graduated from the Santa Ana Unified School District's Head Start program Thursday.
The federally funded program, which began in the district this year, was started by President Lyndon B. Johnson in 1965 as a way to prepare low-income children for kindergarten and help them and their parents to become contributing members of society.
Children learn to reason, develop language skills and gain confidence. Families must meet stringent guidelines set by the federal government to qualify.
"We teach the children social activities, where they learn to share, take turns and communicate with their friends," said Janet Butcher, program director.
Throughout the year, Head Start staff members spent four days in the classroom and a fifth day visiting the homes of participants to interact with their families. Each classroom of 17 students is supervised by a teacher, instructional assistant and a parent.
The program also provides participants with meals, health care and transportation to school and back.
Mothers and fathers are encouraged to attend 10 sessions, which include topics such as basic nutrition needs, how to discipline a child in a positive way and how to promote a child's intellectual development.
"It made me more aware of what my son is going to need and what changes he'll be going through," said Lorraine Sepulveda, whose son, Sam, is a Head Start graduate.
"I want him to go (further) than high school and have more than I had," said Sepulveda, 30, a single mother. "I want him to do something with his life and put something back into the community."
Joyce Hughes, 47, has noticed similar changes in her 4-year-old granddaughter, Lacec, whom she has reared since infancy.
"This teaches them how to stand on their own two feet," Hughes said. "She's really shy, so this has helped. She's more open and helpful and loves setting the table and helping with the dishes."
Sachdeva beamed with pride as she presented each of her students with a miniature diploma and planted a kiss on each cheek.
"They were like a bunch of cocoons who needed help to become butterflies," she said after the ceremony.