Gallatin County Schools Early Childhood Coordinator Heather LeBlanc was honored with the 2022-2023 Kentucky Education Support Staff Professional (KESSP) Award on Dec. 9. A second honoree will be named on Dec. 11.
The KESSP award was created in 2020 by Gov. Andy Beshear and. Lt. Gov. Jacqueline Coleman to recognize the state’s more than 46,000 classified school employees. Classified school employees serve in vital and often overlooked roles, from driving students to school, to preparing their meals, to working with partner agencies to ensure students’ vital needs are met.
“I want to thank everyone,” LeBlanc said. “People think that early childhood education is like babysitting or something simple, but we are setting the foundation for the students’ entire lives. … Everybody should be a stakeholder in early childhood education.”
LeBlanc received her award in a surprise visit by Coleman, a former educator, and Kentucky Commissioner of Education and Chief Learner Jason E. Glass. Gallatin County Superintendent Chuck Cash, Kentucky state Sen. Gex Williams and Gallatin County School Board Member Hargis Davis also attended the event.
“I want to thank the governor and lieutenant governor for this opportunity to honor the vital contributions classified employees make to every school district in this state. Heather has directly contributed to the success of our students. Her hard work and dedication are noticed and deeply appreciated,” said Glass.
Coleman said she could not be as successful in the classroom without the work of classified employees.
“Often their work goes unnoticed,” Coleman said. “That’s why I am so pleased to be included in honoring these employees and putting a spotlight on the work they do. Their work is extraordinary, but not uncommon. It truly makes a significant difference in the lives of our students.”
As a winner of the KEESP award, LeBlanc’s name has been forwarded to the U.S. Department of Education (USED) for consideration for the 2022 national Recognizing Inspirational School Employees (RISE) Award.
The RISE award, which recognizes classified school employees who have displayed excellence in serving students, was passed by Congress in 2019 and is overseen by the USED.
LeBlanc said she has always had a desire to support children and since 1995, has done so in one capacity or another, from facilitating summer programs for Indigenous youth in Canada to serving as a kindergarten aide. About 10 years ago, she moved to Gallatin County and now serves as the early childhood coordinator.
“Heather is an exemplary leader and has a commitment to improve our early childhood programs,” said her nominator, Kerry Tackett with the Gallatin County Family Resource Center.
Her position, which is funded through a Governor’s Emergency Education Relief (GEER) II grant, has given LeBlanc the opportunity to work with community partners – such as the public library and the local health department – to plan, advertise and implement events that benefit the community and families.
LeBlanc’s work was featured in the July 19 Cabinet for Health and Family Services community newsletter. The article focused on the literacy train at Gallatin County’s Dolly Parton Imagination Library Night that she filled with books funded through the GEER II grant and early childhood funds, her nominator said. Children and families who attended the event were allowed to choose new books from the train to read.
Teresa Edlin, the Family Resources Youth Services program planner with the Gallatin County Family Resource Center, said LeBlanc’s project united the community.
“It truly bridges together school, families and community,” Edlin said in the newsletter. “GEER II helped increase enrollment in this literacy program to over 200 children.”
LeBlanc promotes the Dolly Parton Imagination Library at every event possible. Through her efforts, there has been an 30% increase of those in the community who receive free books.
During her time as the early childhood coordinator, she has created and implemented parenting classes, called Parents for Outstanding Development – or POD squads – that provide education and support for young families.
LeBlanc reinvigorated a community early childhood council into one with 27 active members who represent all aspects of the early childhood community and profession.
“This would not have been possible without Heather’s commitment to canvassing our community as well as the local early childhood community,” said Tackett. “In less than a year she had this council up and running. The council has never been so successful within our community.”
Her work in the community also has included researching grant opportunities for a local church struggling to get funding for a proposed daycare, finding a matching grant and encouraging the church to apply.
“The church is currently working towards breaking ground on the project,” said Tackett. “If it hadn’t been for Heather’s leadership and commitment to meeting the needs of our community, this project would still be only a thought.”
LeBlanc has worked with in-home childcares along with one of the only local licensed childcares to offer support and materials to others. By doing this, “she has built a positive relationship with these businesses that will serve our community for years to come,” Tackett said.
Her dedication includes helping out wherever needed, such as decorating for an open house or creating a better relationship between the daycares and the school system.
She also has been an advocate for classified employees and works to enhance their image.
“People can see that support staff are vital in the lives of our students, staff and families due to Heather’s positive, can-do attitude,” said Tackett.
Gallatin County Superintendent Cash praised LeBlanc’s contributions to the school district.
“Heather LeBlanc is a valuable asset to Gallatin County Schools,” he said. “She has a strong commitment to Early Childhood Education and the future of Gallatin County students. We are thankful for Heather and appreciate all her hard work.”
The KESSP committee, composed of key education stakeholders, was assembled by Coleman and Beshear to review and score the nominations.