Strong Start


In a Daviess County elementary classroom outside of Owensboro, students are especially glued to a morning math lesson. What better way for a swarm of preschoolers to understand subtraction than tracking how many cookies remain as a plate empties? 5-3=2 is hitting home.

In the space of a half hour, the group of 11 three- and four-year-olds at Burns Elementary covers important basics: In the math problem, veteran preschool teacher Nikki Knott takes extra time to single out and explain the minus sign and the equal sign in the math equation. The class transitions to a foundational literacy lesson on the letter K. Students discuss and practice the sounds the letter makes in different words.

The teacher shows how lines are combined to create the letter when it is written; and, shortly after, each child pushes bars of construction paper together, then draws K’s themselves. Even that prompts an important reminder — the best way to hold a pencil, pen or marker is grasping it between the thumb and first two fingers. “Alligator pinch!” their teacher reminds them.

The preschool day is an active and playful journey through facts and routine that set a solid foundation for everyday action and knowledge. In this Kentucky community, expanding access and participation in high quality early childhood education will get a big boost in 2022 as an educational and economic development priority.

In January, the Greater Owensboro Partnership for Early Development launched a new plan for building a stronger and more accessible early education system over the next four years. The emphasis has been building steam as a major focus of the Public Life Foundation of Owensboro, which has committed $4 million to the cause. In 2021, the group partnered with the Prichard Committee for Academic Excellence to identify key issues and build the civic campaign.

“The research is clear — the path to opportunity for all begins with the start we provide to our youngest children,” the Partnership stated in a January report outlining its goals. “Investments in high-quality early childhood education result in higher rates of educational attainment, a reduction in health costs, a reduction in the incidence of crime, less demand for social welfare services, and a more competitive local economy for Greater Owensboro. All in the community stand to gain from this work.”

CHILDREN IN THE EARLY HEAD START program at Audubon Area Head Start on the east side of Owensboro play outside in dress-up vests.

Over the next four years, the Greater Owensboro Partnership report calls for:

  • A community awareness push to intensify support for expanded early learning;
  • A coordinated effort to develop and retain a talented pool of early childhood workers;
  • Expanded child care benefits for employees in local businesses including at small and mid-sized employers;
  • Greater awareness among eligible families of child care subsidies and free preschool;
  • A campaign for private child care providers to earn ratings above three stars on the state’s quality scale;
  • Expanded access to clear waiting lists for Head Start and other programs in the county; and
  • Better availability of school readiness and quality data to encourage continuous improvement.

In the last half of 2021, more than 40 community representatives met to draft the strategy after the Prichard Committee and the University of Kentucky Martin School of Public Policy and Administration pulled together an analysis of the current early childhood ecosystem in Daviess County, showing opportunities for significant improvement.

The research found that almost half of third graders in the county did not reach state reading proficiency targets in 2019, with economically disadvantaged students, students with disabilities, and English language learners facing even steeper proficiency gaps. At present, the analysis found, only about 20 percent of nearly 6,800 children under age five in the county had access to early childhood education services. Licensed providers had capacity to serve about 3,800 children, but enrollments lagged that number.

I’m looking forward to the day when we move the needle on kindergarten readiness and third-grade reading. … That means increased availability of quality, affordable childcare for low-income families.

— David Boeyink


Reshaping early childhood care, improving quality, and focusing on improved school readiness can be key factors in improving quality of life, adult success, and economic conditions, members of the Greater Owensboro Partnership’s organizing group agreed.

“Ultimately, I’m looking forward to the day when we move the needle on kindergarten readiness and third-grade reading,” said David Boeyink, whose involvement with the Public Life Foundation over the past 25 years helped lead to the creation of the new Partnership. “But that will only happen when we get programs on the ground. That means increased availability of quality, affordable childcare for low-income families.”

Those who work in early childhood programs said that a coordinated, community approach may be the best way to address an area like early childhood that spreads across many agencies, including school districts, specialized programs like Head Start, public and home-based providers. The system also involves employers, social workers, specialized assistance aimed at first-time parents and newborns, churches, and requires attention to services offered before, during, and after typical work hours.

Chris Westerfield, preschool coordinator for the Daviess County Public Schools, said he is eager for more parents and community members to see the kind of preparation happening in schools across the county like Burns Elementary.

“It lays the foundation for everything else we do,” he said. Practicing basic skills and gaining experience with other children and adults is a big advantage for children moving into elementary school years, he said. “I hope the communication piece is going to push more people to see the value.”

Boeyink, a former journalist with the Owensboro Messenger-Inquirer, said that this community provides fertile ground for deeper work in early childhood improvements. Both local school districts have built strong preschool programs and other groups have eagerly embraced school readiness. Local pediatricians, he said, offer a literacy program that provides free books and information to families on reading and brain development.

“Community collaboration isn’t just talk; it’s a daily reality,” he said. “In the midst of a pandemic, we’ve been working with a large, diverse group of people who come to monthly in-person meetings ready to push this project forward.”


At the Audubon Area Head Start program on the east side of Owensboro, a group of three- and four-year-olds move around a busy classroom offering games, puzzles, and areas where teachers have created stations. This day, students play with ice cubes to discuss how they melt into liquid when children handle them. Nearby, another adult is guiding children through a similar activity with a tall, clear container of water. Children take turns choosing items to drop in the container to see what will float, what will sink, and discuss why.

Outside, a group of younger children in the center’s Early Head Start program, run across a play area, trading dress-up vests made to look like the uniform of a chef, police officer, mail carrier, and more. They stop to tinker at play areas or to chat with their teachers.

Amanda Huff, who has worked with local Head Start efforts over the past 15 years from part-time teacher to local-area manager, said that planners here understand that challenges and opportunities extend beyond stronger early learning benefits for the children enrolled.

She said that the Partnership’s goals will also improve the abilities of parents. In many cases, Huff said, the lack of options for affordable child care keep able and talented young parents out of the workforce. “We are missing out on talent in the community because of what we can’t provide for people,” she said.

In addition, leaders of the Greater Owensboro Partnership have recognized the chance to examine their work and share their experiences.

Bruce Hager, chair of the Public Life Foundation, said the Prichard Committee’s involvement not only strengthens efforts locally but will allow lessons to spread in other Kentucky communities. Part of the Prichard Committee’s role is disseminating best practices.

“We are thrilled to support them in work that will have roots in Owensboro but will expand throughout the state to benefit early learners from Pikeville to Paducah,” Hager said last year in announcing the foundation’s long-term emphasis on quality early childhood programs.

Huff is optimistic about what can happen in Owensboro. Her involvement in developing the Partnership’s four-year plan, plus long experience working with a variety of partners, make her look forward to the wider community response.

“This community always comes through — anytime there is a need, you put it out there someone will pick it up,” Huff said. “Children really are put first here, and that’s huge.”

FOUR-YEAR-OLDS AT AUDUBON AREA HEAD START participate in a group discussion.

TOP PHOTO: PRESCHOOL TEACHER NIKKI KNOTT works with a student at Burns Elementary in Daviess County on recognizing and writing out the letters in his name.

The U.S. Congress holds the power to pass an incredible $400 billion investment into America’s struggling child care and early education sector right now that is estimated to deliver nearly $2 billion to Kentucky to invest in its children! This presents Kentuckians with a once-in-a-generation opportunity to provide care and early learning opportunities to unprecedented numbers of Kentucky children and support their working moms and dads. 

Over $763 million have been awarded to the Kentucky Division of Child Care from the federal American Rescue Plan passed by the U.S. Congress in early 2021. These funds will allow more Kentucky parents to join, remain in, and fully contribute to our workforce, support local economies, and provide more children with the early care and education so crucial to their physical and intellectual development. 

A common phrase is that a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.  It is a phrase that is often repeated in the early childhood education community as parents and educators grapple with the blank slate of possibilities that young children represent for themselves, their families, and their community. Our youngest children are all too eager to take their first steps on to life’s great stage.

What a life changing time these past three months have been! And I’m not just talking about the pandemic! I am now the proud parent of a beautiful baby girl—and now I have to return to work. I thought I had child care figured out, but the center just closed the infant room because a staff member tested positive for COVID-19. Now what am I supposed to do? I’ve called other child care centers in the area, but no one has an opening for an infant!

Each year, about 165,000 infants and toddlers under the age of three – a number more than the combined population of Bowling Green, Owensboro, and Richmond – learn and grow across Kentucky. Many working families face daunting challenges finding safe, reliable, and vibrant child care options for these youngest Kentuckians.

Their challenges have grown even more acute. Even before the COVID-19 public health crisis disrupted the child care landscape (see Kentucky Child Care Provider Survey), child care centers across Kentucky were limiting enrollment due to challenges finding qualified employees. Far fewer Kentuckians were providing child care in their homes as a family child care provider – those who meet state standards for safety, health, and quality.