LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) -- Inside a second-floor classroom at the Minor Daniels Academy, teachers listen intently as to their role in reshaping alternative education at the reconfigured middle and high school on Bashford Manor Lane.

"We knew from the beginning we needed to rethink how we place kids who are in need of a different setting," Jefferson County Public Schools chief academic officer Dewey Hensley told the teachers at a recent orientation. "We need to offer these students a variety of potential pathways to help change the trajectory of their life. Instead of doing something by the deed or the book, we will do it by the life (of each child)."

Minor Daniels Academy was formed earlier this year when JCPS merged Buechel Metropolitan High School and Kennedy Metro Middle School, both of which serve students with behavioral problems.

The effort to reshape alternative education will be among the most-watched changes as JCPS begins the 2015-16 school year on Wednesday.

But it’s not the only new development for the district, which is expected to serve 101,000 students this year – its 15th year of enrollment growth.

There will be new faces – including 262 new teachers and 23 new principals – and fewer bus depots for elementary students.

As students and parents get ready for another year, here’s an overview of the biggest changes coming to Kentucky’s largest school district:

New grading scale

In a move that might be particularly popular among high school seniors, JCPS’ new grading scale makes it easier for students to earn an A.

"It puts our students on the same level and on par with other students across the state," said Karen Branham, assistant superintendent of curriculum and instruction for JCPS.

She noted the revised scale will help seniors compete for state scholarship money through the Kentucky Educational Excellence Scholarship.

The district’s new scale scores 90 percent and above as an ‘A,’ whereas students previously had to earn a 93 percent to receive an ‘A.’ Scores as low as 80 percent will now earn a ‘B’ instead of a ‘C.’

"We are not lowering the expectations for our students, but making adjustments to ensure rigor," Branham said.

Fewer report cards at elementary level

Elementary school parents will notice two fewer report cards this year. JCPS decided to move from six grading periods to four for its youngest students.

The district is exploring changes for middle and high school student, but no decisions have been made.

The change means elementary students will get report cards every nine weeks instead of every six weeks, Branham said.

"Our parents will still have access to their children's grades all the time by using the district's parent portal," Branham said. "Parents and schools will also have more time to respond to a student's needs prior to report cards being issued."

New Schools of Innovation

The Kentucky Department of Education has designated JCPS one of the state’s seven "Districts of Innovation."

The designation gives the district more freedom to experiment with different ways of learning.

District officials chose four conceptual schools as finalists, but only two will open this fall -- the Catalpa School at Maupin Elementary and the Louisville Reach Academy at Atkinson Elementary School.

"These are two new great innovative choices for parents who may be looking for something different," said Michael Raisor, chief operations officer for JCPS. "We have invested a lot of time and energy into both of these schools and we are excited to see how it will all work out."

More students receive free meals

An additional 26,000 students at 31 public schools in Jefferson County will begin receiving free breakfasts and lunches this fall – regardless of their income. 

The move means that a total of 81,300 JCPS students at 127 schools are now eligible to receive the free meals thanks to a federal program that enables high-poverty districts across the country to offer the meals to all students at schools with enough kids that are certified as qualifying for free lunch.

“This is a wonderful opportunity for us to provide free meals to more of our students,” said Julia Bauscher, director of School and Community Nutrition Services with JCPS. “It will not only save our families money, it will also remove the stigma that is associated with receiving the free meals."

JCPS estimates the move will save families at the 32 additional schools who previously qualified for reduced-price meals $122 per child annually. Families that did not qualify for free meals would save about $800 per child each year, Bauscher said.

To see if your child's school is included, click here.

Early childhood education expansion

Last summer, JCPS purchased the Presbyterian Community Center in Smoketown for $1.5 million so it can be used for early childhood classrooms. Part of the building on Hancock Street is the new site of the JCPS early childhood education application center.

Expanding early childhood education has been a top priority. The district served approximately 4,000 pre-kindergarten students last year. Another 500 students will be enrolled this year.

The majority of those seats are for income-eligible students for Early Head Start, Head Start or pre-kindergarten. But there are 100 seats for tuition-based preschool.

New elementary school opens in eastern Jefferson County

After 20 years as an alternative middle school, the Alex R. Kennedy school building in Jeffersontown will once again hear the pitter patter of little feet.

The school on Taylorsville Road was built in 1955 and operated as an elementary school until 1981, when it closed due to a declining student population.

It became a book depository in 1982 until 1996, when JCPS converted it into an alternative middle school.

Last summer, the school board voted to convert the building back into an elementary school to help ease overcrowding concerns in eastern Louisville.

"This is a school that was built to serve elementary children," said Kevin Nix, the principal of Alex R. Kennedy. "We are very excited to see what the future holds."

Alternative education changes 

In March, the school board approved a plan to merge Kennedy Metro and Buechel Metro and make other changes at Breckinridge Metro High, Liberty High and the Phoenix School of Discovery.

District officials believe the changes will better meet the needs of individual students, as well as reduce the drop-out rate and increase the graduation rate of the district's alternative students.

Rather than assign a student to an alternative school, a committee will look at each child and his or her circumstances and find a pathway the district hopes would ultimately guide them to a program or place where they can be successful.

The changes will also help ensure safe and orderly environments in the district's other schools, officials say.

Last month, the school board voted to rename Buechel Metropolitan High School the Minor Daniels Academy in honor of a former JCPS teacher and administrator who was actively involved in the community for many years.

“In the past, we've placed kids in alternative settings because of something they did. It tended to be punitive and it really didn't help,” Hensley said in an interview. “In a way, it was like Groundhog Day. They'd get sent to an alternative setting or they’d be sent home on a suspension and then they go back to their regular school and come right back...This is a whole new way at looking at alternative school placement and finding a solution and a pathway to help them succeed.”

Reporter Antoinette Konz covers K-12 education for WDRB News. She can be reached at 502-585-0838 or @tkonz on Twitter.

Copyright 2015 by WDRB News. All rights reserved.