LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) -- Lots of excitement marked the first day of class for nearly 96,000 students in Jefferson County Public Schools as they returned from summer vacation on Wednesday.

“Good morning! Welcome back, I missed you so much!” Valerie Mayfield exclaimed. She is a physical education teacher a Camp Taylor Elementary School where students getting off their bus were excited to see her Wednesday morning. “How was your summer?”

As many students rushed to hug her, Mayfield smiled. “This is why I do this,” she said. “I love these kids.”

Similar scenes played out across the district all morning.

"These are moments that no one forgets," said JCPS Superintendent Donna Hargens, who visited six schools Wednesday. "That's what today is about, (it's about) welcoming students, but also getting them engaged in learning because you set the tone for the school year on the first day."

JCPS is expecting an enrollment of 102,367 students this year – an increase of 2,000 students from three years ago. It is the 28th largest school district in the country. Approximately 96,000 kindergarten through twelfth graders reported back to class Wednesday, while the district's 6,000 pre-kindergartners won't start until Sept. 2, said district spokesman Ben Jackey.

This year, principals and teachers had a shorter turnaround to get their schools ready for the new year. Due to a harsh winter, the 2013-14 year was extended into June and students reported back to class about a week earlier this year.

“We lost about three weeks,” said Tim Healy, principal of The Brown School in downtown Louisville. “It was a fairly quick turnaround to get everything ready.”

Fourth graders in Susan McCoomer's class at Brown were already studying plants by the afternoon.

“We don't waste any time,” Healy said. “It really is important to get them back into a routine as quickly as possible.”

At Eastern High School, senior Dominique Gibbons is excited to see what her final year of high school will bring.

“I'm just excited to meet new people and make some great senior memories,” she said. “I'm also looking forward to our lacrosse season. We have a lot of new kids coming out to play.”

Lots of changes greeted JCPS students as they returned to school Wednesday.

Officials have restructured some of the district's lowest performing schools in an attempt to turn them around and a host of new initiatives are being unveiled in an attempt to reach more students.

“We are looking at every aspect of student learning and trying to meet every need so we can increase student achievement,” Hargens said. "Our theme is putting more dollars and support into our schools so that it will impact directly impact students."

The Jefferson County Board of Education approved a $1.3 billion budget in May that includes expanding preschool, creating transition centers to help struggling middle and high school students and hiring mental health counselors who will be assigned at the school level to help out with the emotional needs of students.

In addition, nearly 55,000 students at 95 schools started receiving free breakfast and lunch on Wednesday — regardless of their income – because of new federal eligibility rules that enable high-poverty districts to offer free meals to all students at schools with enough kids that are certified as qualifying for free lunch.

Officials estimate the move will save families who previously qualified for reduced-price meals $122 per child each year. Families that did not qualify for free meals would save about $700 per child each year.

“This is big deal for our students and for our families,” Dylan Owens, the principal at Greenwood Elementary School said during lunch on Wednesday. “We are providing more meals and we are saving parents money.”

Dan Ellnor, nutrition service center manager with JCPS, said approximately 23,000 breakfasts and 12,000 lunches will now be free to students who didn't previously qualify for free meals.

“We've had to order more food and prepare more food,” Ellnor said. “About 13 percent more food is going out of the central kitchen and being delivered to our schools.”

The district also eliminated six elementary bus depots, meaning 1,500 fewer students will have to transfer buses in order to get to and from school. It also means shorter ride times for those students.

In addition, Frost Middle School became a sixth grade academy, an attempt by JCPS officials to turn the low-performing school around by focusing on smaller class sizes and other methods aimed at boosting student achievement.

Seventh and eighth graders who would have attended Frost are now assigned to Valley High School, where they will be housed separately from the high schoolers in a part of the building where the Phoenix School of Discovery used to be.

JCPS says the last student was dropped off at 6:35 p.m. Wednesday. Officials say that's 20 minutes faster than the first day of school in 2013.

In a tweet, superintendent Donna Hargens said "About 99.9 percent of...students were home by 5:45 p.m. Our drop-off times were greatly improved from last year."

"We expect improvement every day for the next couple of weeks. Thanks to our staff as well as our parents and students for a great first day," JCPS officials said in a press release.


- Hours: 9:05 a.m. to 3:45 p.m. for elementary schools; 7:40 a.m. to 2:20 p.m. for middle and high schools.

- Find your child's bus route: CLICK HERE

- Transportation hotline: Call 485-RIDE (7433) for information about your child's bus route. The hotline is open from 7:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Monday; 7:30 a.m. to 7 p.m. Tuesday; 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. Wednesday; 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. Thursday.

- Meals: Elementary school breakfasts cost $1.75 and lunches cost $2.50. Middle and high school breakfasts cost $1.85 and lunches cost $2.60. Reduced-price breakfasts for all grade levels cost 30 cents and lunches cost 40 cents.

Reporter Antoinette Konz can be reached at 585-0839 or @tkonz on Twitter. Copyright 2014 WDRB News. All rights reserved.