LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) – Officials in charge of Jefferson County Public Schools’ Head Start program said Tuesday that they’ve made great strides in fixing issues raised last year by the U.S. Administration for Children and Families, which threatened an emergency suspension after finding instances of child abuse and neglect.

The federal agency’s review prompted JCPS to fire seven teachers and assistants in the program and enact a corrective action plan, and the district is continuing to take steps to ensure past mistakes in the program aren’t repeated.

Those in charge of early childhood education at the district say recent unannounced monitoring visits by the Kentucky Department of Education show their efforts are paying off.

KDE visited eight schools that had been previously visited by the ACF, and the state found compliance deficiencies at only two.

“That’s extremely validating, especially for our teachers and our instructional teams in the classrooms and our administrators at the ground level who have been working very hard to continue to improve our practices and have the best possible environment for our youngest learners,” Rina Gratz, JCPS’ director of early childhood programs, said after a Jefferson County Board of Education work session Tuesday.

The KDE’s findings at the other two schools were not nearly as dire as those found by the ACF, which oversees the federal Office of Head Start.

For example, KDE found an unlatched gate and a pair of young trees growing in the playground that needed to be removed at Kerrick Elementary and interactions between adults and children at Unseld Learning Center that did not promote student growth, Gratz said.

“That’s a coaching issue, and we are in the process of doing that,” she said.

JCPS has submitted a corrective action plan to the ACF, and the district is still implementing ways to improve its Head Start program, which serves children from low-income families.

Other options include getting more behavioral specialists in the program and reducing class sizes.

School board member Steph Horne said additional behavioral specialists on staff along with some smaller classes could provide safer environments for teachers and students.

“I think that having kind of that safe space with the smaller classroom within each facility, it’s not on the list, but that just enables that more one-on-one treatment in a sense to try to figure out what the issues are in a smaller environment,” Horne said during Tuesday’s work session.

JCPS officials say they’re encouraged by the feedback they’ve received from federal authorities throughout the process of correcting some of the issues raised in the ACF report.

“The exchange between the district and our federal partners has truly been a partnership, and that partnership has allowed us to have open lines of communication, share some of the positive things that are going on, but also areas where we can make refinements,” Felicia Smith, assistant superintendent of academic services, told WDRB News. “So that is the kind of spirit that has actually been enhanced as a part of this process from the beginning.”

Still, it’s unclear exactly when ACF and its Office of Head Start will be fully satisfied with the district’s response to its findings. Gratz said JCPS’ Head Start program will be evaluated through on-site visits, but she’s not sure how the process will play out since a planned meeting between the two sides was delayed thanks to the brief federal government shutdown.

“It’s in their hands now,” she said. “We’re doing our work, and they can come.”

Reach reporter Kevin Wheatley at 502-585-0838 and kwheatley@wdrb.com. Follow him on Twitter @KevinWheatleyKY.

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