Shelley Simpson, preschool teacher at Erlanger-Elsmere's Early Learning Center, helps a student get ready for the playground. Brenna Kelly, Dec. 7, 2015

Shelley Simpson, preschool teacher at Erlanger-Elsmere’s Early Learning Center, helps a student get ready for the playground. Brenna Kelly, Dec. 7, 2015

Brenna R. Kelly

It looks like a typical high school hallway. Metal lockers line cinder block walls and students sit in classes behind wooden doors. But halfway down the hallway at Lloyd Memorial High School, the doors are painted light blue.

Students behind those doors aren’t learning algebra or chemistry. They are learning their ABCs and how to count to 10.

Most of these nine preschool and daycare classrooms didn’t exist last year at Erlanger-Elsmere Independent’s Early Learning Center inside the high school.

“We needed more room,” said Matt Engel, the district’s supervisor of instruction. “As we have targeted and found more children for preschool, we had to have space for them.”

The renovated high school classrooms are just one part of Erlanger-Elsmere Independent’s efforts to make sure every child is prepared for kindergarten.

“What we are trying to do is increase community collaboration, increase high-quality early childhood education opportunities, focus on transitions and work on parent engagement,” said Superintendent Kathy Burkhardt.

The intense focus on early-childhood education came after the first statewide Kindergarten Readiness Screener results in 2013-14 showed just 35.9 percent of the district’s students were ready for kindergarten.

Since then, the district has increased its preschool enrollment in both state-funded and Headstart programs, worked with childcare centers, hosted a toddler school, created summer programs for incoming kindergartners and tried to educate the community about the importance of early childhood education.

And it’s working. This year, 45.5 percent of students entering kindergarten in Erlanger-Elsmere were prepared, according to the screener results.

“I think it’s just more awareness; parents didn’t know that preschool was important,” Burkhardt said. “A lot of parents said, ‘I didn’t know what it meant to be kindergarten ready.’”

Erlanger-Elsmere’s success caught the attention of Northern Kentucky community leaders who this year supported the district’s efforts through Pre-K Works, an initiative to get all area students ready for kindergarten. The United Way of Greater Cincinnati and Skyward, a regional planning group, plan to replicate the plan across Northern Kentucky.

School districts and communities across the state are working to increase the number of students who come to school ready to learn. Nearly half of all Kentucky’s kindergartners were not prepared according to this year’s screener results.

“Unfortunately, not all children have the same opportunities to develop and learn before they enter school,” Education Commissioner Stephen Pruitt said. “The reality is that poverty has a big impact on education in Kentucky. It is a reality that puts children at a disadvantage when they enter school and one that we must address from day one.”

In Erlanger-Elsmere, 74 percent of new kindergarten students this year qualified for free- and reduced-price meals, a standard indicator of poverty. Of those students, just 37.7 percent were kindergarten ready.

On average, children from disadvantaged homes enter kindergarten at least two grade levels behind their peers.

That means those students are behind from day one, said Burkhardt.

Erlanger-Elsmere’s plan is designed to create more opportunities for high-equality early childhood education for all students, whether it’s in preschool, daycare or at home. In addition to the new classrooms, the district partnered with Children Inc., a nonprofit childcare provider, to offer classes for children as young as 1, and worked with Head Start to increase the number of spots available for Erlanger and Elsmere residents.

But in order to fill the news slots, the district had to find students.

“We just took everybody available in the district and went door to door,” Burkhardt said.

Along with Head Start staff, the district targeted certain areas in Erlanger and Elsmere, which together have about 27,000 residents. But because state-run preschool is only available to children who have a developmental delay or meet family income guidelines, the district had to find other ways to help students.

“What we found was happening was that if they didn’t qualify for our preschool, then more than likely they didn’t go anywhere,” Burkhardt said. “We really worked hard to get more children into some kind of program.”

In order to make preschool more convenient for working parents, the district created a full-day blended class that’s half district-run and half staffed by Children Inc. Children can be dropped off at 7 a.m. and picked-up by 6 p.m.

Shelley Simpson, who teaches the blended class along with a Children Inc. teacher, came to the Early Learning Center this year after 11 years teaching preschool at Northern Kentucky University.

“I was very intrigued to hear what was going on,” said Simpson, who worked with Burkhardt previously on early childhood education initiatives. “I knew if she was behind something, she was going to stick to it.”

Simpson already can see that preschool will have a long term positive effect on many of her students.

“There are a lot of kids that we are getting that we might not have had before,” she said, “so we are catching some things earlier, like if there’s a potential speech issue.”

The district’s other efforts include:

  • The Erlanger-Elsmere Early Childhood Collaborative, which includes the district, Children Inc., United Way and the area’s childcare centers. They meet once a month to share ideas and resources.
  • Toddler School, a program for children ages 1-3 held on Fridays when the district preschool is not in session to offer activities, screening and information about kindergarten readiness.
  • United Way Born Learning Academies, held in the evening at three of the district’s elementary schools to offer children and their parents learning activities.
  • Me and My School programs, funded in part by the United Way, are summer programs for incoming kindergartners to get them ready for school held at the district’s elementary schools.
  • The Footsteps to Learning app, which offers E-books, lessons and games for free to anyone living in the district’s boundaries.

The focus on preschool is challenging, Burkhardt said, but it will pay off when children succeed not just in school, but in life.

“I’ve learned a lot that I didn’t know about early childhood education and I’m still learning,” she said. “But it’s exciting because what we see now is that based on what we have all done together, it’s raised our kindergarten readiness.”