PRE4CLE makes preschool a priority in Cleveland

Perhaps two people who know PRE4CLE best are Cleveland Early Childhood Compact co-chairs Eric Gordon, CEO of the Cleveland Metropolitan School District, and Marcia Egbert, senior program officer for human services for The George Gund Foundation.

FreshWater asked some critical questions about the state of PRE4CLE and its future.

FreshWater: You both led the effort to start PRE4CLE. Why did you think an effort around high-quality preschool was important for Cleveland?

Eric Gordon:  Cleveland has the highest childhood poverty rates in the country, and we know that children in poverty are significantly disadvantaged compared to their peers. We also know how much brain development, literacy development and overall growth occurs from 0 to 5 years old, before we would traditionally see a student in kindergarten. And we know that a child who starts kindergarten behind is highly likely to stay behind while a child who starts kindergarten ready tends to keep up. For these reasons it was critically important that we focused on high-quality preschool as part of the launch of The Cleveland Plan.

Marcia Egbert:
We deeply believe that every child in Cleveland has unique potential, but far too many of our children don’t have fair or adequate opportunity to develop that potential right from the start. PRE4CLE is meant to help level that playing field. It’s only a piece—but a pretty big piece—of the puzzle to help every child succeed in our city.

FW: What was important to the creators of PRE4CLE as far as how the effort would be structured and how the goals would be put in place?

EG: It was and still is critical that this was a public/private partnership that could include any provider who was willing to make the commitment to offering a high-quality early learning experience for 3- to 5-year-old children in the city. It was also critically important that we leverage as many existing assets as possible to create a low-overhead compact and not another expensive-to-run agency.

ME: We wanted to have goals that represented both progress for children (our Child Benchmarks such as Kindergarten Readiness Assessment) and improvements in the early childhood system (System Benchmarks such as increased number of highly rated providers as recognized by the state Step Up To Quality rating system).

FW: What do you see as the greatest impact of PRE4CLE to date? Have the outcomes met your expectations?

EG: I’m very pleased with the progress we’ve made. I’m particularly pleased at the number of high-quality early childhood slots that are available and used today (a 71.6% increase compared with 2013), that we have addressed some high-need areas of our city to ensure sufficient access is available, and that we have effectively encouraged families to fill those seats. I’m also pleased with the positive overall growth on the [Kindergarten Readiness Assessment] and the direct relationship between PRE4CLE in particular and high-quality early childhood in general and higher [Kindergarten Readiness Assessment] scores that we’ve seen over time.

ME: I think one of the greatest impacts of PRE4CLE is that it has brought focus and rigor and investment in our youngest learners in sync with how we prioritize support for the K-12 education system. It’s critically important that the broader society and our specific community understand just how essential high-quality early learning is to a child’s and our community’s future. PRE4CLE has helped retrain our collective focus on younger children, on starting earlier if we want to see the gains in student achievement and healthy child development we know will lead to a stronger community.

FW: Advocacy has been a focus of PRE4CLE since it began, which isn’t always typical for community efforts. Why was that chosen as a focus of PRE4CLE’s work, and do you think that has generated the results you hoped to see?

EG: In my opinion, part of the power of public/private partnerships and shared ownership coalitions is the ability to create advocacy around an important issue, as opposed to creating advocacy to support specific agencies. The evidence around the importance of high-quality early childhood education is so strong, and growing every day, so this is a critical issue that we were all able to collectively support. We have had a number of wins in our advocacy work, but there is a great more to do if we are truly as a community and hopefully a state going to ensure universal high-quality early childhood for every child.

ME: Advocacy is the essential ingredient—the “secret sauce”—in PRE4CLE’s recipe for success. We can’t just hope for change, we’ve got to make it happen through our work with public sector partners. Add in the fact that our constituents in PRE4CLE are knee high, and it’s easy to see that we have a responsibility to bring their voice to the public policy table. Four-year-olds don’t vote. Three-year-olds don’t lobby. We need to do that on their behalf, so they don’t get left behind when critical decisions about public investment are being made.

We’ve made both great progress and insufficient gains through our advocacy efforts. Through harnessing our collective voice, we’ve partnered with our city, county and state governments to boost financial investment in high-quality preschool, accelerate the essential transition to higher quality pre-k providers, and ensure there are solid state benchmarks to gauge our progress. All fantastic wins! Yet, advocacy is inevitably a journey; it’s seldom a “one and done” effort. So, we’re thrilled with the gains to date and restless for more investment and improvements now and in the future.

FW: Eric, as CEO of the Cleveland schools, what impact have you seen in the schools as a result of more children having access to high-quality preschool?

EG: We have seen an increase in kindergarten readiness, which we know over time will result in an increase in third grade reading scores and in the longest term an increase in graduation rates. For example, the current fourth grade class started kindergarten in fall 2014, and only 33.2% of those students were fully ready to learn to read on the [Kindergarten Readiness Assessment]. 85.3% of that kindergarten class met Ohio’s Third Grade Reading Guarantee by the end of third grade last year. That means my educators had to close a 52.1% point gap between kindergarten and third grade. If we hope to have every child reading at grade level by third grade, and we know we can close a gap this big, imagine what will happen when 50% of our kindergarteners show up ready to learn reading!

FW: Marcia, supporting early childhood efforts has been a big focus of Cleveland’s philanthropic community in recent decades, including with your organization, The George Gund Foundation. Why has this become a priority, and do you see that commitment continuing?

ME: This work is a priority because we care passionately about the future of this community. We can’t possibly envision a strong and healthy future for Cleveland if we don’t invest today in its future residents. We’ve learned far too much about the science of brain development in the first five years of life to ignore the fact that it is the most fertile time to develop human potential. Did you know that children’s brains develop 1 million synapses (neural connections that support learning and skill building) every second?! (That’s info from the Harvard Center on the Developing Child). And getting down to brass tacks, there are few, if any, other financial investments we can make with always-limited grant dollars that produce as high a rate of return—in both economic and social terms—as high-quality pre-k. I see that commitment continuing for as long as we have children in our community that need a boost to access the high-quality early learning and development opportunities that they deserve. So, yes, we’re in it for the long haul!

FW: Cleveland becoming a Say Yes city made big headlines this year, both for the college scholarship that students of the Cleveland Metropolitan School District can receive but also because of the supports that will be available to children from preschool through college. How does PRE4CLE and the focus on early learning fit into that effort?

EG: We were very deliberate when working to bring Say Yes to Cleveland that one of the earliest investments we would need to make is to directly connect Say Yes’ k-12 work with our pre-k work. We have a task force in place and are actively working to add indicators of success into the Say Yes measurement system so that we can further connect kids and families to services at ages 3 and 4 in the same way that Say Yes already envisions connecting kids and families to when they turn 5 and begin kindergarten.

FW: Often, people talk about early learning as an economic issue, but for those in the community who have not heard that argument, it’s hard to see how something that happens in the preschool classroom at age 4 could translate into a stronger economy. Can you help connect the dots on why preschool is an important economic strategy in addition to a key educational strategy?

EG: I’m going to leave this one to Marcia, who will have better data, but there is a strong relationship between early literacy investments and the resulting “return on investment” years later in that children who have high-quality early childhood education are significantly more likely to graduate high school, go to college, and complete college compared with those who did not have a high-quality early learning experience. That leads to two separate but important economic outcomes. 1) The graduate and post-graduate is much more likely to pay taxes and contribute to an economy, and 2) simultaneously that same graduate or post-graduate is less likely to use the costly public resources of a community (food assistance, costs of incarceration, public health and mental health supports, etc.). That’s what leads to the significant economic benefit.

ME: Eric covered this really well, but I’ll add a bit. Early childhood is a time when children acquire the foundation of many skills needed for 21st century jobs, including both cognitive and character skills. Nobel Laureate James Heckman describes the return on investment in early childhood education best: “Outcomes in education, health and sociability greatly influence our nation’s economic productivity and future. Achieving better outcomes in these areas will create far greater productivity and prosperity than simply cutting spending to reduce deficits.”

His research, embraced by our local Federal Reserve Bank, shows that the rate of return for investment in quality early childhood education is 7 to 10% annually through better outcomes in education, health, sociability, economic productivity and reduced crime.

FW: What do you see as critical issues for PRE4CLE to tackle over the next five years?

EG: Two issues that I think are most important are 1) dosage – we know what one year of high-quality early childhood education has contributed to our children, but we know many of our children really need two years of early childhood education to overcome the significant gaps between their 3-year-old experiences and the expectations of kindergarten readiness at 5 years old, and 2) scale – we need to ensure that every 3- and 4-year-old child in Cleveland has access to a high-quality early childhood experience. We’ve made huge gains in enrollment as I noted above, but we are not yet offering universal access, so this remains important to focus on.

ME: We simply have to find a way to make investment in our youngest learners the priority for public investment, both locally and in Columbus and Washington. Of course, that is not PRE4CLE’s responsibility alone, but we embrace the chance to lead the public dialogue on putting our young children first. We can’t sustain the powerful gains we’ve made, let alone extend those gains to every child, if we can’t help policymakers see the tremendous value in investing in human potential in its purest form.

When LaToya Cater-Murray enrolled her daughter Aubrey at Douglas MacArthur Girls’ Leadership Academy, she knew that preschool was important to her daughter’s lifelong learning success, as well as her social and emotional well-being, but she was impressed with the outcomes.

“I like the idea that preschool gives children choices,” she says. “I feel like it's important for children to actually have a choice in the activities that they want to participate in, that produces [an] outcome of learning. When I'm at home and I see my daughter counting and spelling words, it makes me feel confident as a parent that my daughter [will] be ready for kindergarten.”

Also, Aubrey is excited to go to school every day, Cater-Murray says. “I feel that preschool has helped my daughter in a social-emotional way because I feel she can problem solve,” she says. “She works well with a group of friends. It also provides her choices and opportunities where she can advance with her communication skills.”

Five years after launching PRE4CLE—a plan to expand high-quality access to Cleveland preschools for all of the city’s 3- and 4-year-olds—officials and educators are celebrating the many milestones reached since March 2014.

<span class="content-image-text">PRE4CLE Executive Director Katie Kelly</span>PRE4CLE Executive Director Katie KellyAfter five years, 24 of Cleveland’s 34 neighborhoods have seen an increase in the number of students enrolled in high-quality preschools, with a combined rise of 2,300 seats, prompting five big reasons for PRE4CLE to celebrate:

  • 19,000 kids have attended high-quality preschools in Cleveland in the past five years;
  • PRE4CLE has reached 25,000 families through its enrollment campaigns;
  • 179 high-quality preschool programs in the city have three-, four-, or five-star Step Up to Quality ratings;
  • PRE4CLE has secured $57,000 in new state funding for local early education programs;
  • and high-quality preschool enrollment has risen 72%.
“We have 4,903 new students in high-quality preschools,” says PRE4CLE Executive Director Katie Kelly. “We’re really proud of that accomplishment. We're also encouraged to see many more high-quality preschool seats in neighborhoods throughout the city, increasing access for families in the neighborhoods where they live."

PRE4CLE released its annual report for the 2018-19 school year last week. Developed by more than 50 community leaders and guided by the Cleveland Early Childhood Compact, the public-private partnership is part of the Cleveland Metropolitan School District’s Cleveland Plan for Transforming Schools. It includes leaders from education, government, community organizations, business, and religious groups who are committed to working together to implement and support the goals of the PRE4CLE plan.

The annual report illustrates how all the work done by PRE4CLE and its partners has paid off and is worthwhile.

“Every single child born in this community is a bundle of potential,” says Marcia Egbert, senior program officer for human services at the George Gund Foundation and co-chair of the Cleveland Early Childhood Compact. “And every single child in this community deserves an opportunity to explore the depth of that potential. We think that early-childhood education is one of the key paths for doing that.”

In addition to highlighting the past five years’ many accomplishments, the annual report looks at where PRE4CLE must go in the future. For example, the Obama White House and national media outlets like the Huffington Post, Education Week, and PBS NewsHour have recognized PRE4CLE’s work as a groundbreaking effort in education.

“I think the thing that's unique in Cleveland, and PRE4CLE is a model of it, is that Cleveland has solved our education problem by making it everybody's problem,” says Eric Gordon, the Cleveland school district’s CEO and the co-chairman of the Cleveland Early Childhood Compact. “And so the partnerships that we've brought together, the foundations, the county, and the support there, the business community support, the school district and private providers all coming together is unique to the city of Cleveland. When you look across the country, you just don't see that kind of collaborative effort to solve the challenges of education, and it's really the only way we're going to do it.”

As they reach the five-year mark, Kelly and other educators involved in this private-public partnership are looking back and examining where Cleveland stands on its education initiatives.

The effort
Some of the positive changes reflect results from four main efforts, Kelly says:

  • Helping existing preschool programs increase their quality to meet a high-quality standard, as determined by Ohio's Step Up to Quality rating system for early education;
  • reaching out to families to communicate about the importance of high-quality preschool, and providing resources and support to help them find and enroll in the right preschool for their child;
  • creating additional seats in targeted neighborhoods;
  • and advocacy to government and community leaders to help expand resources for early learning access and quality.
“All the research that we've seen says that investing in children as early in life as possible, from the very beginning, really pays off down the road in their future academic success and really in their life success,” says Egbert. “So we thought that it is a fundamental pillar of investing in our community, in a solid education system, in our future workforce, and in making Cleveland the very best place for families it can be.”

The goal was to have 45% of Cleveland’s 3- and 4-year-olds enrolled in the 173 high-quality preschools by 2019. PRE4CLE came close, at 43%, and has its sights set on reaching 50% enrollment by 2020.

A high-quality preschool meets a three- to five-star level in Ohio's Step Up to Quality system and is characterized by environments that are fun, welcoming, safe, and caring; staff and teachers who are well-trained and professional; research-based curriculum and feedback to the parents about their students’ learning; educational activities that prepare students for kindergarten; and creative and imaginative play to inspire a lifelong love of learning.

Cleveland currently has 11,400 preschoolers. Before PRE4CLE started, 2,857 children were enrolled in high-quality preschools in 2013, and that number has increased steadily—from 4,080 in 2015 to 4,903 in 2019.

“We’ve made a lot of gains through these initiatives,” says Kelly, citing five neighborhoods—Downtown, Euclid-Green, Stockyard, Detroit Shoreway, and Goodrich-Kirtland Park—as the areas with the highest enrollment increase since 2014.

This progress is due in part to concentrated efforts to increase enrollment in areas with a high population of young children, Kelly says.

“That strategy has helped us convene preschool programs and other community partners to be more planful about how preschool seats are added throughout the city,” she says. “We also focus our efforts to raise quality in the same targeted way.”

Their efforts have been more effective in some neighborhoods than others, Kelly says, but they are optimistic that the strategies will continue to benefit every part of the city. Neighborhoods like Clark-Fulton, Old Brooklyn, Kinsman, Broadway-Slavic Village, and Mount Pleasant continue to see 10 to 29%, while Buckeye-Woodland and Lee-Seville have less than 10% enrollment in high-quality preschools.

Kelly attributes the low numbers in part to a lack of suitable school buildings. “In some neighborhoods, there just are not the right physical spaces to open a high-quality preschool, and that’s been a key challenge to increasing access,” she says. “For preschool, you want buildings that are of course in good condition but also offer natural light, updated electrical and other safety conditions, green space for a playground, and adequate indoor space for classrooms and indoor physical activity.”

PRE4CLE and its public and private partners are addressing the challenges in these underserved neighborhoods, Kelly says. “Other neighborhoods may have more providers that are lower quality and still in the process of working toward a higher quality rating,” she says. “Those providers are working with PRE4CLE throughout lead agency Starting Point to help achieve a higher rating.”  

Positive Signs
Not only are more kids attending high-quality preschools, the efforts are paying off in kindergarten readiness. PRE4CLE set a goal—and achieved it—of having 65% of its students place in the top two tiers of Ohio’s Kindergarten Readiness Assessment, up from 60% in 2015. And 29% placed in the top tier—all of them showing they were prepared to move on to kindergarten.

Douglas MacArthur Girls’ Leadership Academy preschool teacher Sara Burdette is just one of many making sure Cleveland students get the head start they need to begin kindergarten equipped with a lifelong love for learning.

“The routines that are established in a pre-k classroom are going to prepare your child for kindergarten,” she says. “They are going to become independent thinkers. Those are things that we want to see our children achieve and be able to continue through the rest of their learning career.”

The Kindergarten Readiness Assessment measures early literacy skills, early math skills, positive interactions with teachers and peers, the ability to succeed in the classroom, and an enthusiasm for learning.

Additionally, PRE4CLE aimed to have half of its students be on track in the language and literacy component of the Kindergarten Readiness Assessment, up from 45% in 2015.

“My goals are to prepare my students for kindergarten and the rest of their educational careers,” she says. “It means instilling them with the knowledge of letters, letter sounds, vocabulary, numbers, friendships, how to talk to each other, communicate.”

The numbers are encouraging, Kelly says. “We are thrilled that kindergarten readiness levels are continuing to rise as more children have access to high-quality preschool,” she says. “Making that happen was truly a community-wide effort, and we look forward to continued growth during the next five years.”

Goals for the future
While PRE4CLE officials are proud of their accomplishments in their first five years, Kelly says work remains to be done.

“The first five years of PRE4CLE were really about building a strong foundation, including having enough preschool seats across the city to serve children, especially making sure each neighborhood had what they needed and making sure the quality of our programs were increasing to align with the state's Step Up to Quality system,” Kelly says. “And so, we've really reached a great point.”

One of the first steps is working with the state of Ohio to ensure all state-funded early childhood programs are highly rated by 2025.

“In order to reach our goal of every 3- and 4-year-old in Cleveland having access to high-quality preschool, we need to make some big leaps in a couple of areas that are critical to preschool quality and access,” says Kelly, adding that the right program support is critical. “We have to work with our leaders at the state level to ensure that more families have access to affordable childcare. We are encouraged that Gov. [Mike] DeWine has committed to increasing the number of families that can access state supports for childcare in the next state budget.”

But PRE4CLE is also working with 2019 Say Yes Cleveland—an organization supporting Cleveland school district students from preschool through grade 12 and offering college scholarships—to make sure the preschool component is covered.

PRE4CLE plans to spend the next five years addressing issues of racial equity in Cleveland’s early childhood education programs. And, of course, the city needs to be equipped with enough space to accommodate all of Cleveland’s preschoolers in new or renovated buildings—especially in those neighborhoods lacking good facilities—while also supporting and recruiting talented preschool teachers.

“We also need the right physical spaces to create new high-quality seats, which is related to the increasing access in each neighborhood,” Kelly says. “And we need better support for our incredible teachers, to make sure they have the compensation, professional development, and classroom supports they need to do the amazing work that they do and grow in their profession.”

Kelly says she is looking forward to PRE4CLE’s next five years, and she’s optimistic the organization will continue to make a positive impact on early childhood education. “We still have a long way to go, but we are building that strong foundation,” she says. “And so, the next phase of PRE4CLE is really how do we go farther? How do we go deeper? And how do we make sure that our kindergarten readiness numbers continue to climb?”

Karin Connelly Rice
Karin Connelly Rice

About the Author: Karin Connelly Rice

Karin Connelly Rice enjoys telling people's stories, whether it's a promising startup or a life's passion. Over the past 20 years she has reported on the local business community for publications such as Inside Business and Cleveland Magazine. She was editor of the Rocky River/Lakewood edition of In the Neighborhood and was a reporter and photographer for the Amherst News-Times. At Fresh Water she enjoys telling the stories of Clevelanders who are shaping and embracing the business and research climate in Cleveland.