LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) – Half of Kentucky's kindergartners did not enter the 2014-15 school year prepared to learn the reading and math skills they are expected to master, according to data released Wednesday by the state.

Fifty percent of students who entered kindergarten in the fall of 2014 were considered "not ready,” according to a statewide readiness screening administered by teachers to 49,089 kindergartners in all 173 school districts.

It's a very slight improvement from the 2013-14 school year, when 51 percent were considered not ready.

"While we are moving in the right direction, this data reinforces the importance of quality early learning opportunities for all children," Gov. Steve Beshear said in a prepared statement.

Countless research studies show that a student's ability to read and adequately comprehend by the time he or she exits primary school is a key indicator of future educational success, such as whether the student will be ready for college or a career upon graduating high school, said Kentucky Education Commissioner Terry Holliday.

“Performing at a certain level on the screener is not a requirement for entering kindergarten,” Holliday said in the news release. “Rather, it gives our teachers a tool, so they can meet children where they are instructionally and provides a way to determine when interventions may need to begin early to ensure students get on track and stay on track for success."

In Jefferson County Public Schools, 52 percent of kindergartners were considered ready, although the numbers vary from school to school. At Minors Lane Elementary, only 14 percent were ready, compared to 89 percent at Stopher Elementary and 90 percent at Greathouse/Shryock Elementary. 

“One in two students being ready for kindergarten is not where we want to be,” said JCPS Superintendent Donna Hargens. “We know this is a solvable problem. I am hopeful we can tackle kindergarten readiness and as community we can unite to provide learning opportunities for our littlest citizens at a much earlier age.”

At Minors Lane, 96 percent of students qualify for free and reduced-price lunch and 37 percent have limited English proficiency.

"We have six different languages represented in this year's kindergarten class," said principal Zac Eckels. "A lot of students that come to us who have never had the formalized structure that we have in a school building. We have kids from refugee camps, they were at a camp two weeks prior to coming here."

In addition, some students come to kindergarten not knowing how to hold a pencil or have never seen a book before. Some are still wearing diapers, Eckels said.

"We embrace the challenges that our kids have and where they come from, but it's not excuse," he said. "Every child must succeed and grow. There are no excuses." 

Hargens said she is encouraged the district's numbers are better than what they were a few years ago when JCPS gave the pilot version of the test and 65 percent of kindergartners were not deemed ready.

“We are up 17 percentage points from where we started,” she said. “But that's not good enough.”

Kindergarten teachers are only one piece of the answer, Hargens said.

“We need to make sure parents understand that learning doesn't start when their child goes to kindergarten, learning starts the minute they are born,” Hargens said. “Reading to them, making sure they have access to lots of vocabulary words – there are lots of little things parents can do to help their child.”

In Bullitt County, 50 percent of kindergartners were “not ready,"the same as last year. In Oldham County, 35 percent of kindergartners were "not ready," higher than the 29 percent deemed not ready in 2013.

Officials say the assessment, called BRIGANCE, provides teachers with key information early in the school year that they can use to guide instruction to meet the individual needs of all students.

Among other things, students are asked their name and age, to recite the alphabet and count to 30. Their answers are measured in five areas: physical well-being, language, cognitive skills, self-help and social-emotional skills.

Parents were also asked to fill out a survey about what type of setting the child was in the year before starting kindergarten.

In Jefferson County, approximately 4,000 students are enrolled in early childhood programs operated by the district.

Meagon Ford, a veteran kindergarten teacher at Minors Lane, said the majority of her students did not attend preschool or pre-kindergarten.

"They didn't know their letters, their numbers...they didn't know how to spell or write their name," she said. "These are things we kind of have to back up and start from scratch. It can be a really struggle."

Officials say that families, daycares and early childhood education providers and community partners must work together to provide the developmental experiences that promote growth and learning to ensure that all children in Kentucky enter school eager and excited to learn.

In Jefferson County, officials have been working to expand early childhood education in an effort to increase the number of students who are ready for kindergarten. 

Last summer, JCPS purchased the Presbyterian Community Center in Smoketown for $1.5 million so it can be used for early childhood classrooms. In addition, early childhood education wings will be added at Atkinson and Maupin elementaries and at Stuart Middle, with another wing opening at the new Norton Commons school in the 2016-17 school year.

"These results show the importance of early childhood programs and why state and federal funding for them is crucial to student success," Hargens said.

However, as WDRB News reported last week, JCPS is at risk of losing approximately $14 million annually in Head Start grant money due to a deficiency found in its management of the federally funded preschool program.

The Administration for Children and Families, a division of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, conducted a review of JCPS Head Start programs in Dec. 2013 and found three areas of non-compliance and one deficiency.

The deficiency pertains to JCPS not properly documenting it had obtained or arranged further examination by a certified professional for 15 children who were in need of treatment ranging from further dental care to hearing, developmental and social-emotional screenings that indicated a need for diagnostic testing.

Oldham County Schools was also notified via a similar letter it must compete for its $650,000 in federal Head Start aid due to an April 2014 incident where a special-needs preschooler was left unattended on a school bus for several hours.

Reporter Antoinette Konz can be reached at 585-0838 or @tkonz on Twitter.