Future of JCPS up in the air as district awaits results of a state audit

LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) – Jefferson County Public Schools did not correct two major deficiencies in its Head Start and Early Head Start programs and likely avoided having its $15 million grant terminated by voting to relinquish it this week.

In a report sent Thursday to the Jefferson County Board of Education, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services found 17 additional allegations of student abuse and four more reports of children being left unattended in its Head Start and Early Head Start programs. The federal agency that oversees Head Start grants detailed 16 such incidents in an August letter to the district.

Nearly every new incident was reported by JCPS, but one was observed during an on-site visit by the Office of Head Start on March 6, when a member of the review team saw two women at Chancey Elementary yank a boy by his arm and speak to him harshly.

One alleged incident happened the week before the school board voted to give up its $15 million Head Start Grant when an instructional assistant self-reported that she had “swatted a preschool student on the back of the head," which caused the girl to hit her head on a piece of furniture and bruise her lip May 21.

Other incidents detailed in the follow-up report include a child whose food allergies were not communicated by an early childhood teacher before the boy was served food that caused a reaction; an early childhood teacher and lead instructional assistant who did not change a child’s diaper for an entire day; an instructor who was observed grabbing and pulling children and throwing a child’s shoe across a room after the student kept fidgeting with it; an instructional assistant who was observed lifting a child by his ankles, dragging him by the arm and pulling him around by the face and chin when he resisted, twisting his neck in the process; a substitute who left a child asleep in a classroom as he took the other nine students to the restroom; and an instructional assistant who dumped children out of their cots after their naps.

Because the Jefferson County Board of Education voted to relinquish its grant effective June 30, "termination proceedings are not applicable for the deficiencies identified in this report," Deborah Bergeron, director of the Office of Head Start, wrote in a letter to school board Chair Diane Porter that accompanied the report.

JCPS corrected one of the three deficiencies originally cited by the Department of Health and Human Services, establishing new reporting systems to notify federal, state and local authorities of alleged mistreatment and implementing better training for staff.

The school board’s vote to relinquish the district’s Head Start grant came about two months after it had reapplied for $15.7 million in funding. However, the Office of Head Start recently informed the district that a single incident could jeopardize its status as a Head Start provider.

The district, which enacted a corrective action plan after the initial August letter, plans to spend $8 million in the 2018-19 school year and expand its early childhood program to 3- and 4-year-old children eligible for Head Start, a federal program for low-income children.

JCPS Communications Director Allison Martin said the district has “increased training for employees, swiftly dealt with alleged incidents and improved oversight for classrooms” since Head Start problems arose.

“While we have seen a decrease in incidents, we know this is a sustained effort over time,” Martin said in a statement.

“Our board and administration moved proactively to relinquish the grant and focus the district's efforts on providing safe and high-quality educational environments for three and four year olds to increase kindergarten readiness,” she said. “These efforts include a commitment of $8 million in funding, certified or properly credentialed teachers in all classrooms and a move to early childhood centers to improve organizational coherence and oversight.”

Porter did not immediately return a message seeking comment Saturday.

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 provide more local children access to early childhood services. On Friday, the Ohio Valley Educational Cooperative expressed interest in offering Head Start in Jefferson County.

Interim Education Commissioner Wayne Lewis blistered the school board’s decision to give up the $15 million Head Start grant in a statement Friday, using the vote and the controversy surrounding Head Start to justify his recommendation for a state takeover of Jefferson County Public Schools. The board also voted Tuesday to request a hearing before the Kentucky Board of Education as it appeals that recommendation.

Lewis said Saturday that the report’s findings were “deeply” concerning and “extremely disappointing,” especially since they involve “our most vulnerable children."

But they did not come as a surprise, he said.

“I have a 3-year-old who’s in early childhood, early care, and so it’s difficult for me to imagine, to put myself in the shoes of those parents and to think about my kid or a staff member or administrator telling me that something happened to my child at school the likes of which we see in that report,” Lewis told WDRB News.

The fact that one of the incidents highlighted in the follow-up report happened in front of the Office of Head Start’s review team also troubled him, he said.

“These are the things that were happening while a review team was on site,” Lewis said. “From my time working in schools and around schools, when people are on site observing, that’s generally when everybody’s on their best behavior. What’s going on when nobody’s around to observe?”

He noted that problems in the district’s Head Start program were key in his recommendation for state management of JCPS.

Thursday's Head Start report won’t come up in the Jefferson County school board’s appeal since it was released after Lewis's recommendation, and he declined to speculate on how the state board will rule in the hearing, which has not been scheduled.

Still, Lewis said the evidence gathered by the Kentucky Department of Education to support his recommendation “is overwhelming” and urged JCPS parents to read the audit as they form their opinions on what’s best for the district's future.

“Given the severity of the findings of that audit, it’s pretty telling when the loudest comeback is that we ought to have local control over what happens in our district – not refuting the findings of the audit, but the argument that there ought to be local control,” Lewis said. “Parents really need to pay attention to what is happening in their district and make informed decisions, have informed opinions.”

The Head Start follow-up report can be read here:

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

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