Step by 'step:' How PRE4CLE is helping local preschools ramp up kindergarten readiness

In 2016, Collinwood-based A Jubilee Academy carried a two-star Step Up to Quality (SUTQ) rating—not high enough to be considered high-quality by the state.

Two years later, A Jubilee Academy is the only five-star SUTQ center in the Collinwood area. Students participate in cooking classes, music education, and also study Mandarin twice a week as part of a partnership with Cleveland Public Library. Children have individual cubbies instead of sharing them. Preschool enrollment has doubled, and a new classroom will open in the fall.

“Our inner-city, low-income kids are now getting the same experiences [as kids in other high-quality programs],” says owner Chalfonte Smith. “There are 1,892 days from birth to kindergarten. We’re laying the foundation to set these kids up to be successful in school and after.”

So what made the difference? In September 2016, A Jubilee Academy was one of five providers selected to participate in PRE4CLE's Accelerated Quality Improvement Model (AQIM) program, funded by Cuyahoga County Invest in Children and led by Starting Point. The three-month AQIM intensive was specifically designed to help lower-quality providers rapidly make the leap to high-quality by achieving a three-, four-, or five-star SUTQ rating.

The big-picture goal? Increasing kindergarten readiness for youth in Cleveland, where as of 2015, just 15 percent of children entering kindergarten in CMSD were prepared to succeed in school. Of that number, almost half of the children who scored "on track" in the state's literacy assessments came from high-quality preschools.

“We wanted to create more high-quality preschools in Cleveland as a benchmark of PRE4CLE,” explains Michelle Bledsoe, PRE4CLE Coordinator at Starting Point. “There is very meaningful, statistically significant evidence that children in high-quality programs do better on kindergarten readiness assessments.”

PRE4CLE was developed in 2014 to help fulfill Cleveland’s Plan for Transforming Schools, a large-scale effort to reinvent public education in the city. Its core mission is to expand access to high-quality preschools—and increase the number of high-quality preschools from which local families can choose.

The AQIM was able to help fast-track that outcome by helping local providers make great strides towards higher-quality education in a condensed time period. Among the five schools in the cohort were A Jubilee Academy (North Shore Collinwood), Angels on Earth (Jefferson), Brightside Academy (Kinsman), Intergenerational Day Care (Collinwood-Nottingham), and Superior Academy (Hough).

According to Starting Point’s Karla Martin, the five schools were handpicked for their likelihood to make the leap. “When we got ready to start the intensive program, we looked at two-star rated programs that could get over the hump to three [stars],” explains Martin, who is Starting Point’s Step Up to Quality Coordinator. “We determined which programs we thought were ready based on their motivation and drive. A lot of resources were put into it, so we wanted them to be successful.”

As Smith and the other participating providers learned, there was a daunting amount of ground to cover in the 90-day period—from required trainings to student assessments to curriculum improvement and implementation. To reach the finish line, providers were matched with Starting Point technical assistants and received as many as 200 hours of on-site support.

For Angels on Earth owner Marilyn Gonzalez, working with Starting Point was a familiar pursuit. When she founded the center back in 2002, she received a $25,000 startup grant from the organization, and Angels on Earth was also part of the initial pilot program for Step Up to Quality back in 2005. It was via the AQIM cohort in 2016 that Angels on Earth was able to achieve a three-star rating.

“The accelerated program really helped us because it was hands-on learning [for teachers and staff],” explains Gonzalez. “We had two TAs working with our teachers three days a week, teaching them how to run the classroom and make it developmentally appropriate. Honestly, that one-on-one time with the teachers is what really helped.”

Bledsoe says that Starting Point employs 20 early childhood specialists to provide technical assistance, and that the connections they make are key to overall success. “Much of what we do is relationship-based,” she says. “A lot of what we did in the beginning was cheerleading and trust-building. [The providers in the cohort] weren’t always happy with us—they were working overtime, on weekends, and when school was closed [to raise their rating]. All of them really went above and beyond.”

From Smith's perspective, the return on that time investment has been significant, as members of the cohort received free access to and training on costly curriculum materials and assessment tools (such as Ages and Stages Questionnaires, Creative Curriculum, Devereux Early Childhood Assessment Kits, and others). Various educational materials were also provided—from sensory to STEM to social/emotional development—along with items like dramatic play outfits, music CDs, parachutes, and more.

“Most centers, especially those that are privately owned, can’t afford those tools,” says Smith. “It’s been a gift.”

Raising the qualifications of staff has been another benefit for AQIM participants. To date, Angels on Earth has not been able to qualify as a PRE4CLE provider because not all staff members meet the educational requirements. However, after completing the AQIM, 12 staff members were able to go through the CDA training program for free—setting them on course to pursue higher degrees. This fall, 16 staff members from both A Jubilee Academy and Angels on Earth will be enrolled at Cuyahoga Community College and Lakeland Community College on partial T.E.A.C.H. (Teacher Education and Compensation Helps) scholarships.

“My goal is to get everyone [at Angels on Earth] their associates’ or bachelors’ degree,” says Gonzalez. “I encourage them to take advantage of these offerings.”

According to Starting Point's Bledsoe, all five programs in the AQIM cohort have maintained their higher-quality ratings to date, which she calls a “huge accomplishment.” Many of the schools are seeing new business, with preschool enrollment more than doubling at A Jubilee Academy (from 16 to 28 children) and going up by as much as 10 percent at Angels on Earth.

In total, 352 preschool seats were raised to high-quality through the Accelerated Model, with 102 more in the pipeline. Currently, 42 percent of Cleveland's children are enrolled at high-quality preschools with ratings of three stars or higher.

Based on the success of the first cohort, another AQIM cohort is planned for the 2019-2020 school year—encompassing 10 programs over a period of six months. This cohort will be even more crucial, as all programs accepting public funding must be rated by 2020. “With each star, you increase your reimbursement,” explains Martin. By 2025, all preschool programs in Ohio will be required to maintain a rating of three stars or higher.

As Angels on Earth director Anife Tashi sees it, it's all part of doing whatever it takes to prime youth for success from an early age. "Our goal is to work toward a four- or five-star rating," says Tashi. "I believe childcare should build a strong foundation, and the teachers in early childhood education should be more educated themselves—because that's where the foundation starts."

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Read more articles by Jen Jones Donatelli.

As a Cleveland native and enthusiast, Jen Jones Donatelli is thrilled to take on the managing editor role at FreshWater. As a full-time freelance writer and editor for more than a decade, Jen has contributed to publications including Redbook, Budget Travel, GOOD, Playboy, Thrillist, Cleveland Magazine, Los Angeles Confidential, San Francisco, Ohio Today, and many more. She is also a contributing editor for Destination Cleveland and a proud graduate of Ohio University's E.W. Scripps School of Journalism.
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