Early Education

How Cleveland revamped its preschool programs in just five years

Enrollment in high-quality preschool is up after dramatic community-led effort

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high quality preschool programs

The number of high-quality preschool programs in Cleveland has increased by 32 percent in just one year.

Three years ago, Chalfonte Smith’s childcare center in north Cleveland, Ohio, was struggling academically. The problem was not for a lack of trying. Smith couldn’t afford a curriculum, which can cost thousands of dollars. Her teachers did not have enough training. And classrooms needed more books and educational materials.

In September 2016, that all changed abruptly. Smith’s center, A Jubilee Academy, was chosen to participate in an improvement program by PRE4CLE, a city initiative with the goal of expanding access to high-quality preschool across Cleveland. Program officials purchased books, science materials, blocks and musical instruments for the center. They paid for a curriculum. And they underwrote the cost of intensive trainings for teachers to learn about instruction, social emotional learning and how to assess children’s progress. Smith’s teachers were also sponsored to complete the courses required to earn their Child Development Associate Credential, a badge of expertise for early childhood educators. “They just gave us everything so we could give our inner-city kids the same as other high-quality preschool programs,” Smith said.

In just 90 days, the center went from a rating of two out of five on the state’s quality scale, to a five. Three years later, the center boasts assets many parents can only dream of: teachers who have bachelor’s degrees, Mandarin classes twice a week, cooking and yoga lessons and seminars for parents on topics like financial literacy and how to extend learning at home. Literacy scores for children have increased and kindergarten teachers have started to report back to Smith that her graduates are “kindergarten ready.” With a higher quality rating, Smith’s center has become eligible for more grants and funding, which has allowed her to open an additional preschool classroom and offer free seats for some students.

This focus on access to high-quality preschool was born out of a larger city-wide plan to transform schools, introduced in Cleveland in 2012. That plan identified preschool as an important first step to improve K-12 education. PRE4CLE, a private-public partnership, was established by a group of community leaders who wanted to boost access to quality preschool programs in Ohio’s second largest city. At the time, only 25 percent of Cleveland’s 3 to 5-year-olds were enrolled in high-quality preschool, as defined by the state’s quality rating system. In several neighborhoods, there were virtually no high-quality options. This was having an impact on kindergarten readiness: Less than 20 percent of students entering Cleveland Public Schools were testing as fully prepared to start school.

Funded by more than $14 million in public and private money, the initiative has seen wild success in just five years and offers a model for other cities that are looking to expand preschool options and boost preschool quality but don’t have the public funds to do so. The efforts have been supported by the Cleveland Metropolitan School District, Cuyahoga County, PNC Bank, and several foundations, including The George Gund Foundation and The Cleveland Foundation. PRE4CLE has poured thousands of dollars of this money into centers depending on their needs and the funding available during a given year. Rather than handing over money with little to no guidance, the initiative has provided intensive, targeted and ongoing support to each center in areas like staff education and educational materials, which are proven to impact preschool quality. As a result, the number of high-quality preschool programs has increased, with a 32 percent increase between July 2018 and June 2019. Enrollment in these programs has increased by 72 percent and an estimated 4,903 children were served in 2019, up from 2,857 in 2013. Sixty-five percent of PRE4CLE students are testing as approaching or demonstrating school readiness when they start kindergarten.

Here are some of the key strategies PRE4CLE officials say have been the most effective:

  • Helping good centers grow: Executive Director Katie Kelly says the initiative was able to rapidly open up new seats by providing grants of up to $30,000 to centers that were already high-quality to establish new classrooms. The grants helped with some of the up-front costs of light renovations, classroom supplies and teacher salaries for the new classrooms.
  • Helping weaker centers get better: This year, 27 child care centers and 24 family child care homes are working with PRE4CLE to improve. Program officials have visited each center, determined what is standing in the way of these centers improving in quality, and are providing tailored “intensive” professional development, technical assistance, and materials as needed. “It’s really just flooding them with support,” Kelly said.
  • Educating families: The initiative hosts open houses, sets up tables at community events, and has published advertisements across television, radio and social media outlets to help families learn about available high-quality seats in their neighborhoods. They also developed a scholarship calculator to help families quickly find out which preschool programs they are eligible for based on income and then locate those programs nearby.
  • Educating officials: PRE4CLE has prioritized advocacy at all levels of the government, according to Kelly. By doing so, they have secured $57 million in new state funding for local early learning programs in Cleveland.

You can read more about PRE4CLE’s work in their five-year report, available here.

Editor’s note: This story led off this week’s Early Childhood newsletter, which is delivered free to subscribers’ inboxes every other Wednesday with trends and top stories about early learning. Subscribe today!

This story about high quality preschool programs was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for Hechinger’s newsletter.

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Jackie Mader

Jackie Mader is multimedia editor. She has covered preK-12 education and teacher preparation nationwide, with a focus on the rural south. Her work has appeared… See Archive

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