Education

Amid concerns that the district could lose its federal Head Start funding, the Jefferson County Board of Education has voted unanimously to relinquish the $15 million grant for the 2018-2019 school year.

“We’ve had challenges with early childhood and especially Head Start,” said JCPS Superintendent Marty Pollio during Tuesday night’s board meeting.

Right now, JCPS serves more than 3,000 students in various early childhood programs. Under the proposed changes, there will be seats for 3,600 children in the pared down and consolidated version of the new program.

Starting in August, the district will no longer offer its Early Head Start program for children under three-years-old and will instead find a partner to provide services to those families.

For older children — three and four-year-olds from low-income families — JCPS’ 2018-2019 plan would consolidate the 62 locations of Head Start programs to 41 locations. The plan says no three-and four-year-old children would lose their seats in the process, and no staff layoffs are planned.

To make up for the loss of the $15 million federal grant, JCPS will budget $8 million of funding for early childhood services from the district’s general fund.

Risk Of Funding Loss

Last August, a report by the Administration For Children & Families — a division of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services — counted 23 incidents of abuse as well as neglect of students in JCPS’ Head Start program.

“We have been very assertive with our corrective action plan and made sure that we are changing the culture in each and everyone of our schools,” said Pollio.

ACF had informed the district that just one more substantiated incident could put the district at risk of losing funding. On Wednesday evening, Insider Louisville reported the district had recently received two more allegations of physical abuse.

Board member Chris Brady, who was board chair at the time the Head Start report was handed down, declined to comment on the Head Start changes. The same night the program changes were approved, the district also voted to appeal state Interim Commissioner Wayne Lewis’ recommendation for state management of JCPS, and Brady said he wasn’t able to comment due to that appeals process.

But children’s advocates say robust early childhood education programs are key — whether they’re provided by the public school district or others.

“We know that a child’s readiness for school is so contingent on those early learning experiences,” says Terry Brooks, executive director of Kentucky Youth Advocates, a nonprofit organization.

“Whether that is how they develop relationships to adults, how they learn to play with peers, how they receive instruction,” he said. “All of those are cornerstone elements of ensuring of when that little boy or little girl walk in kindergarten and first grade, that they’re ready to learn.”

Focus On ‘Kindergarten Ready’

The decision to give up the federal Head Start funding means JCPS will turn its focus away from younger children and instead concentrate on three and four-year-olds getting ready for kindergarten.

“We’ve had a lot of consultation with Head Start personnel about the best way for us to move forward as an organization,” said Superintendent Marty Pollio during the meeting on Tuesday. “And as we’ve dug into this and really looked at it, we’ve wanted to find a way where first of all we can be more focused on certain kids and making sure they’re kindergarten ready and having an intense focus on kindergarten ready.”

This focus on kindergarten readiness is common, said Lauren Hogan, senior director of public policy and advocacy at the National Association for the Education of Young Children.

“When we’re making policy there often tends to be a focus on those three and four-year olds because in this public imagination, they’re the closest thing to public school,” she said.

This isn’t just true in Louisville; she said a lack of investment in these younger kids is a nationwide problem.

“What neuroscience and frankly the economic return tells us about investing in infants and toddlers is that actually those earliest years have some of the highest return on investment,” Hogan said.

She says those short-term benefits include increased kindergarten readiness and higher third-grade reading scores. There are also even long-term benefits: children in high-quality early childhood education are less likely to go to jail when they’re older and have better opportunities in the future workforce.