Education

A multi-million dollar plan from Jefferson County Public Schools to support students in the West End is more than six months behind schedule.

District officials pitched the “Elev8” center in July of 2021, planning to open by October 1, 2021. The center is meant to provide after-school instruction, enrichment activities and meals to students, with a goal of supporting students who faced the most challenges during remote learning.

The center has yet to open. But officials say construction delays are to blame and that the project is near completion.

‘Life-changing’ services promised at new ‘Elev8’ centers

At the Jefferson County Board of Education’s meeting last August, district staff provided a lengthy presentation on the idea they pitched a month earlier: three student support centers to provide after-school learning for kids in the district’s most underserved areas—the West End, Smoketown and Newburg. 

“They are going to be called Elev8,” JCPS assistant superintendent Alicia Averette told the board. “Students will elevate their mind, possibilities and potential while they are attending our learning centers.”

The district would pay for this ambitious project using about $10 million of its $578 million in federal coronavirus relief funds, also called Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Funds, or ESSER funds. Congress allocated the funds to create opportunities for students who struggled to access education during remote learning. The last of the funds expire in September 2024. Like many districts, JCPS is wrestling to find ways to spend the infusion of cash that won’t require staffing cuts when the money dries up.

“We think this is an innovative way and approach to use our ESSER dollars,” Pollio told the board.

Averette said the centers would be open from 2:30 p.m. to 7:30 p.m. each school day for students with the most need. Students would be identified for participation based on their performance on standardized tests and their attendance – prioritizing students who are chronically absent and struggling to meet grade-level standards. The district planned to provide transportation as well.

The centers would be staffed with certified teachers, who would provide small-group tutoring in math and reading, enrichment activities, social emotional learning and support, college and career counseling and meals for students.

“This is getting kids in front of certified teachers more often and dependable hours every single day,” JCPS Superintendent Marty Pollio said.

During the end-of-August meeting, Pollio said the first center was to be opened in the West End, one month later on October 1, 2021.

That target date immediately struck District 6 Board Member Corrie Shull as unrealistic, especially after a line of questioning which revealed the district had not yet secured a building for the center.

“It looks like that we’re not going to make that October 1 date, which means that the superintendent’s word is not being followed through,” Shull said during the August meeting. “So I’m just concerned that we do what we say that we’re going to do. Also, I don’t want us to outline to the community that we’re going to provide all of these programs—these wonderful, important life-changing programs—and then we don’t adequately resource it when we have the centers up and running.”

Pollio attempted to assuage Shull’s concerns, saying if the building wasn’t secured in time, JCPS would create other options.

“I want to get staff in front of our students as quickly as possible. So I do think we’re going to have to have some interim spots where we put the program before we open up at our intended location,” he said.

Six months later, the first center has yet to open. The “interim spots” never materialized either.

Challenges finding a building

District staff told the board back in August it was a challenge to find a space in the West End that would satisfy the health and safety requirements mandated by the state for an educational space.

Documents show the board signed a lease for the 2500 Building on West Broadway on February 16, 2022, more than four months after the target open date. 

Responding to questions for WFPL News as to why the project is so behind schedule, JCPS spokesperson Mark Hebert sent an email, saying the October 1 start date “became an unrealistic target because we had to lease a building.”

The owners had to do significant renovations and experienced some construction delays, over which we had no control,” Hebert wrote.

Hebert also told WFPL the facility is near completion, and was expected to begin hosting students by the end of April.

A recent visit to the construction site by a WFPL reporter showed work was ongoing, with about a third of the facility incomplete. Hebert said those portions of the building were for other tenants, and not JCPS.

A photo from inside the 2500 building in April 2022.Jess Clark | wfpl.org

Portions of the 2500 Building are still under construction. JCPS says those parts of the building are for other tenants.

Questions about staffing

A proposal the district released in August showed JCPS planned to hire dozens of staff for the facility, including certified teachers, a director, a principal, two counselors, a mental health practitioner, a nurse, custodians, bilingual instructors, special education teachers and many other employees. The district has budgeted $2.3 million a year for the entire project.

Hebert said the district plans to have students in the building by the end of the month, but did not provide details as to how many staff had been secured.

“We are in the midst of hiring and will have all the staff needed when the center opens,” Hebert wrote. “Retired staff will be utilized so we don’t pull any current staff from our school buildings.”

Like most districts, JCPS is facing staffing shortages in many areas, from teachers to custodians to bus drivers.

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to reflect that portions of the building that are still under construction are to be used by other tenants, according to JCPS.

Jess Clark is WFPL's Education and Learning Reporter.