LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) -- The master plan of Jefferson County Public Schools to expand and enhance early childhood education gets a big boost this week with the reopening of the Presbyterian Community Center in the Smoketown neighborhood.

The facility on Hancock Street, located across from the Shepherd Square housing project, served thousands of children before shutting its doors in 2013 after going into debt. Last summer, JCPS purchased the building for $1.5 million so it can be used for early childhood classrooms. But district officials tell WDRB News the center will serve as much more.

"This is an outstanding facility that the district is extremely proud of," said James Francis, the new director of early childhood education for JCPS. "Our overall goal is to increase the quality of our program, have more seats available and have every child ready for kindergarten."

Aside from seven new classrooms that will serve the district's youngest children, the community center is also the new site of the JCPS early childhood education application center, which will open on Tuesday. Early childhood students won't start until Aug. 26.

Parents used to have to go to the VanHoose Annex building located across from central office on Newburg Road to turn in their applications for early childhood programs. Now, they will come to the community center, or for the first time ever, they can apply online on the JCPS website.

Francis said he helped develop the online application for early childhood after sitting through the paper application process with a parent.

"It took her over three hours to complete the application," he said. "It wasn't user-friendly and we needed to address it and we did that in record time, I believe."

"Again, in keeping with our board and our superintendent's philosophy in making everything user-friendly for our parents and the people that we serve, this was right in line with that," Francis said. "It's huge. It's just absolutely huge."

The community center will serve 56 students enrolled in the federal Early Head Start, a community-based program for low-income families that serves pregnant women, infants and toddlers up to age three. The children previously attended the Dawson Orman Education Center on Floyd Street.

"It gives us a center that's solely concentrated on our zero to 36-month-old children," he said, noting that the seven classrooms are smaller and will feature a new outdoor playground.

Scott Young, operations manager for early childhood education, said the seven classrooms are smaller than regular classrooms and there will be a maximum of eight children in a classroom with two instructors.

"There will indoor space as well as an outdoor learning environment specially designed with equipment for infants and toddlers," Young said. "All of the classroom furnishings are sized for infants and toddlers."

The community center will also provide additional office space for about 35 early childhood education staff members who were previously housed at Western High School. The center's gymnasium will eventually be converted into space the district can use for professional development and meetings.

Francis said the Dawson Orman Education Center will now serve three- and four-year-old students, which in turn allows the district to offer pre-kindergarten seats to more children.

Expanding early childhood education has been a top priority for JCPS. The district served approximately 4,000 pre-kindergarten students last year and they have enough seats for 4,500 students this fall.

The majority of those seats are for income-eligible students for Early Head Start, Head Start or pre-kindergarten, although the district does have 100 seats for tuition-based preschool.

According to a recent survey, there are thousands of students in Jefferson County who may have qualified for JCPS early childhood education programs, but did not enroll.

Karen Branham, assistant superintendent of curriculum and instruction for JCPS, said the district had 7,700 kindergarten students during the 2014-15 year. Of that number, 5,591 qualified for free and reduced price lunch.

"We had 3,298 four-year-olds who were served in JCPS early childhood during the 2013-14 year," Branham said. "We believe there may have been as many as 2,300 four-year-old students who were not served in early childhood but may have been eligible."

Branham said data also indicated that 1,926 of the 2,300 incoming kindergarten students came straight from home last year.

"We especially want to target income-eligible students who come straight from the home to engage them in a quality childcare program," Branham said.

JCPS is also in the process of putting together a new application for a new Head Start grant.

As WDRB News reported in January, the district is at risk of losing $14 million annually in federal Head Start funds due to a deficiency found in its management of the federally funded preschool program.

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 dental care to hearing, and developmental and social-emotional screenings that indicated a need for diagnostic testing.

Branham said the district has trained additional staff to properly record the required documents and it has improved its technology. JCPS has also contracted with community agencies to provide onsite dental and physical exams for early childhood students.

"We expect and anticipate applying for and getting the full amount of the grant," Branham said.

The application is due to the federal government by mid-September, she said.

Meanwhile, the district is continuing its efforts to expand and enhance its early childhood programming.

"We are moving forward," Francis said. "There's no question, we know that the research shows that if we want to have more kids kindergarten ready. Early childhood plays a vital role in that."

Reporter Antoinette Konz can be reached at 502-585-0838 or @tkonz on Twitter.

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