LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) – Education advocates say they’re troubled that abuse and neglect problems continue to plague federally-funded early childhood learning programs for low-income students in Jefferson County Public Schools.

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services detailed 21 incidents last week in which the staff of Early Head Start and Head Start at JCPS were observed abusing students or leaving them unattended during the 2017-18 school year. The agency, which had previously reported 16 such allegations to the district in August, sent its findings to Jefferson County Board of Education Chair Diane Porter on Thursday.

The district corrected one of the three deficiencies cited by the Department of Health and Human Services by timely reporting incidents.

Brigitte Blom Ramsey, executive director of the Prichard Committee for Academic Excellence, called the report’s abuse and neglect findings “very concerning.”

“It is a surprise that those haven’t been resolved, especially with the focus on early childhood in Jefferson County,” she said.

“It is concerning that those have not been resolved, and I guess it sheds some light on why the Jefferson County Board of Education chose to relinquish the grant, but then it also prompts concern that gaps will be left for children in those early childhood settings. Community providers and the community stepping up is going to be really important now to ensure there isn’t a gap in service.”

Terry Brooks, executive director of Kentucky Youth Advocates, said he’s seen “a change of attitude” among JCPS leaders who now see Head Start abuse and neglect issues as “a priority and as a problem.”

“The bad news is that by their own admission they haven’t solved it yet,” Brooks said. “… It’s a terribly unfortunate situation, but I think it’s one that there’s some hope that we can over the course of time fix it.”

For children who are victimized in school, the effects on their futures as students can be “devastating,” he said, adding that such mistreatment can also affect their views on schools and school personnel.

“Abuse and neglect has an impact on kids’ learning potential, not just their mental health but their physical health,” Brooks said. “I mean, it resonates into every fiber of their being. This is not just some incident here, incident there. Every one of these is a game-changing incident every time it happens to every kid.”

“Just from a purely ethical standard, we can’t tolerate another one of these for another year,” he said.

Ramsey said the impact can be more problematic for kids in low-income households who are eligible for Head Start and Early Head Start and get services that aren’t available in their homes.

“If they’re not provided supportive, developmentally appropriate environments in those Early Head Start programs and in Head Start, we’re not going to be getting those kids ready for kindergarten and we’re not going to be providing the supports for the brain development that they need at that point in time,” she said.

Before it received the follow-up report, the school board voted Tuesday to give up its $15 million Head Start grant and spend $8 million to expand the district’s early childhood program for 3- and 4-year-old students eligible for Head Start. The Department of Health and Human Services chose not to pursue pulling the grant because of that move, according to Thursday’s letter.

The decision came after the Office of Head Start notified the district that a single incident could jeopardize its status as a Head Start provider. A spokesman for the Department of Health and Human Services told WDRB News that the school board was not provided an advanced copy of the agency's follow-up report.

JCPS Superintendent Marty Pollio said after Tuesday’s meeting that the district would partner with whichever organization gets the Head Start grant, saying that would allow more local children to get early childhood services. The Ohio Valley Educational Cooperative expressed interest in offering Head Start in Jefferson County on Friday.

Brooks said he supports OVEC, which provides Head Start services for nine school districts near Louisville, if it pursues the grant, saying he hopes the organization partners with JCPS and shows the district how to better manage Head Start and Early Head Start programs.

For Ramsey, she wants to see JCPS and other school districts engage “high-quality providers” for preschool and early childhood services.

“For us, it’s important that Jefferson County really better understands the issues outlined in the report from HHS and ensures they are remedying situations in their early childhood programs now before they expand services to other youngsters in the area,” Ramsey said. “I think that’s probably the most critical thing at this moment.”

JCPS Communications Director Allison Martin said in a statement Saturday that district officials took a “proactive” approach in relinquishing the grant and focusing “the district's efforts on providing safe and high-quality educational environments for three and four year olds to increase kindergarten readiness.”

Interim Education Commissioner Wayne Lewis, who recommended that the state assume management of JCPS after a 14-month audit, called the latest Head Start report “extremely disappointing” in an interview Saturday.

The report won’t be used as evidence in the school board’s appeal hearing before the Kentucky Board of Education since it was released after Lewis’s recommendation, and Lewis urged JCPS parents to read the audit before forming their opinions on his recommended action.

Ramsey said Head Start is just one piece of JCPS’s education system, but the matter should be “taken into high consideration by the public and the school system in an overall review of what’s happening in JCPS to ensure the district is actually improving over a short period of time.”

Brooks – who sent emails to state education board members supporting a takeover of JCPS before the audit’s release, according to Insider Louisville – said the public should look at Head Start issues beyond the debate surrounding whether Kentucky’s largest school district should be placed under state management. He described his view of recommended state management for JCPS as “somewhere in between” those who oppose or favor it outright.

“This is a big enough issue that we don’t need the takeover talk to color it,” Brooks said. “It’s an issue that needs to be addressed. No matter where you are on the takeover question, I can’t imagine a single citizen or mom or dad or grandma or grandpa in Louisville that is not looking at this and is deeply troubled by it, again, at a core, ethical basis.”

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

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