A handful of 4- and 5-year-old students filed off a bus and into the George Unseld Early Childhood Learning Center in Newburg on a May morning. With backpacks bouncing, they hurried through the hallway to Lindsey Axson’s classroom.
They were set to eat a small breakfast before heading to a number of “learning stations” strategically positioned around the room.
The students, some of Louisville’s youngest and poorest, spent the next few hours thumbing through books, building with blocks and barraging Axson and anyone else who ventured into the room with questions.
Many of Axson’s students are immigrants facing a daunting language barrier, and nearly every student lives in poverty. But teaching at the Unseld Early Childhood Learning Center, Axson can get assistance from the teachers, aides and specialists in the nearly 20 other classrooms, reducing some of the basic challenges that can arise for early childhood educators.
The Unseld Center includes both the federally funded Head Start program and the state-funded preschool program, but nothing else — and JCPS officials say that’s the ideal set up for early childhood programs.
Many of the district’s nearly 60 other Early Childhood Education locations are parts of other school buildings.
That’s not the best situation for early childhood educators, Axson said.
“I’m definitely glad I’m at a center,” she said. “With the teachers, we have so many ideas we can share with each other, whereas if you’re in a classroom that’s part of bigger school, you don’t always have that teacher you can turn to because they’re in another grade, they teach in a different kind of way than in Early Childhood.”
JCPS is working to change this. This summer, 15 Early Childhood Education classrooms were consolidated. That allowed JCPS to decrease the number of Early Childhood locations from 68 to 62, meaning fewer satellite classrooms and more clusters similar to the Unseld Center, said James Francis, the district’s director of Early Childhood Education.
The clusters can be better for students because they allow for more collaboration among teachers, said Karen Branham, the district’s assistant superintendent of curriculum and instruction.
“They can plan together,” she said. “They can look at student data and analyze assessment data. They can provide interventions for students more effectively — all those things are always better when they’re in a little larger cluster.”
The consolidations have also led to an increase in instructional time, Francis said.
Branham said the district is looking to bring outlier classrooms together not only because it can provide a more robust educational environment, but also because it’s a more fiscally responsible model of classroom structure.
JCPS Chief Financial Officer Cordelia Hardin said the consolidation allows the district to more effectively use the money it has for the Early Childhood Education program. With federal, state and local funds, JCPS has about $44 million to spend on the program. In the new fiscal year, the district did not reduce the amount of funding it puts toward Early Childhood Education, Hardin said.
But a change in state law last year affecting the eligibility age for children in the program led to a sharp decline in enrollment during the 2014-2015 school year, Branham said. Because of that change, about 600 fewer kids were eligible to enroll in Early Childhood, leading to a “step back” in state funds, Hardin said.
Francis, JCPS’s director of Early Childhood Education, said the district would likely need a few years to rebound from that one-year drop in enrollment and funding, which he said ultimately led to the loss of about $1 million for Early Childhood.
That loss of money is all the more reason to use every dollar as effectively as possible, Francis said.
The goal of Early Childhood Education programs is to ensure that every student entering the district is ready for kindergarten, Francis said. And despite a slight loss of funds and the enrollment decline, JCPS is still looking to have more seats than ever available this year.
About 4,400 seats will be available during the 2015-2016 school year, but it’s unlikely every one will be occupied, he said.
Roughly 90 percent of current vacancies are in half-day programs; full-day programs are more in demand, Francis said. In the future, morning and afternoon half-day programs are likely to merge to create full-day programs, which can also be easier on parents juggling work, childcare and transportation, Francis said.
Francis and Hardin said Early Childhood Education is a priority for the district. And though funding is tight for every program, efforts to get more funding into the program haven’t stalled.
The district also purchased and refashioned the Presbyterian Community Center in Smoketown into the Early Childhood Intake Center, complete with classrooms, Francis said.
David Jones Jr., chair of the Jefferson County Board of Education, said boosting Early Childhood Education depends on two things: money and quality. More money will allow the district to serve more students, he said, and higher-quality learning means more students walk into their kindergarten classroom ready and prepared to succeed.