As Kentucky prepares to release the first state-wide results of its kindergarten readiness screenings, education leaders are also emphasizing the need to grow quality early childhood programs.

But funding remains the keyword that many city and state leaders echoed Tuesday, as a means to continue providing and growing early childhood programs.

Last year, the Kentucky Department of Education piloted the Brigance Kindergarten Screener in over 100 school districts. The results showed only about one-third of children had the necessary skills to be deemed “kindergarten-ready.”

“That was really an eye opener for me,” said Jefferson County School Board member Carol Haddad, serving the 6th district.

Quality early childhood care has become increasingly important in the state and around the nation as research points to the benefits of such programs.

Several city and state leaders joined in the dedication ceremony for Jefferson County Public School’s new George Unseld Early Childhood Learning Center located in the Newburg neighborhood, which currently serves  more than 330 students receiving federal and state-funded early childhood care.

Unseld—who died  in 2010—was an influential leader in the Louisville community, serving both as a city alderman, Metro councilman and in the JCPS administration.

In 1967, Unseld became Kentucky’s first African American basketball coach at the predominantly white Seneca High School (where he also graduated from).

“He was a gentle giant. He was a cuddly teddy bear,” recalls his daughter, Jeanie Unseld Williams.

About 19 percent fewer low-income Kentucky children have access to early childhood programs because of a lack of state and federal funding.

But the JCPS school board still made the commitment to open the George Unseld Early Childhood Learning Center.

“Now our job is to make sure the rigor is in every pre-K classroom throughout the district, and then the next challenge is to make sure we expand it,” says JCPS Superintendent Donna Hargens.

Quality early childhood programs are necessary to improve the foundations for children before they enter school, says Terry Tolan, executive director of the Governor’s Office for Early Childhood Education.

Last year, the Brigance Kindergarten Screener was piloted in 109 school districts including Jefferson County. The screener measures a child’s language, motor, social and emotional skills and determines if they’re appropriate when comparing them to averages.

For Tolan, the lack of cognitive language skills among Kentucky children taking the screener were of most concern, she says.

“That was our lowest domain in Kentucky, so we’re hoping that every community will use those results from the kindergarten screen to develop new strategies, new plans for how they, not just as a school system but as a whole community, will come together to improve the knowledge and skills of children’s in the early years,” she says.

Though one-third of students  statewide were kindergarten ready, Tolan says it was a pilot year and the results this year will reflect the state’s improved organization.

“Our expectation would be that you would see some improvement this year just based on the fact that we have a year’s worth of experience in administering the screening,” she says.

Funding has remained a struggle for early childhood education as many departments and agencies in Kentucky compete for cash. Tolan tells WFPL that Gov. Steve Beshear has said he wants early childhood education to remain a top priority this next budget cycle.

Officials say the goal is to have Brigance kindergaten readiness results sometime next month.