PRE4CLE aims to close preschool gap

Whatever you do, don’t tell private, early educators like Stephanie Moore that they are only babysitters.

“It’s like a slap in the face,” said Moore, director of the St. Augustine Manor Child Enrichment Center near Detroit Avenue and West 80th Street. “Not only is this a daycare center, but we’re at the same level as a preschool in a local school district.”

Whether a child goes to such a center, attends highly-rated Cleveland Metropolitan School District preschool classes at schools like Adlai E. Stevenson or Memorial, or is enrolled in a Head Start program isn’t quite as important as the quality of the education provided. Increasing preschool access to all three- and four-year-olds in the city is now a shared goal that unites politicians, educators, corporations and nonprofits under one banner: PRE4CLE.

The public-private partnership focused around CMSD as well as private and home-based providers is gearing up for its second school year. A 60-member task force set out to enroll 2,000 additional four-year-old children into high-quality preschool seats at public and private schools in Greater Cleveland by 2016. About 16 months after announcing that goal, the initiative is more than halfway there.

As of May, about 1,150 additional children have been placed in high-quality preschool slots in both Cleveland Metropolitan School District sites and private programs. Final figures from the most recent school year will be revealed in a PRE4CLE report scheduled to be released in August. Seven hundred preschool seats previously existed, but were raised to PRE4CLE standards, while the other 450 were newly created under the initiative.

“We think we are exceeding where we thought we would be right now,” PRE4CLE director Katie Kelly said. “We have a really strong pace towards our goal.”

According to an analysis of Starting Point data conducted by Case Western Reserve University’s Center on Urban Poverty & Community Development, there were about 1,200 four-year-olds enrolled in high-quality seats when the PRE4CLE initiative was announced in March 2014.

CRWU’s analysis, found in the initial PRE4CLE report, showed that only 2,857 three- to five-year-olds were enrolled in high-quality public and private Cleveland preschool programs at the time. That totaled just 17.5 percent of the city’s preschool-aged population.

PRE4CLE’s plan to expand Cleveland preschool is an extension of the CMSD’s Cleveland Plan For Transforming Schools, which was passed by the state legislature in 2012. Both the district and the public-private PRE4CLE partners believe such an expansion is key to achieving many of the Cleveland Plan’s goals that are associated with higher levels of education, such as tripling the number of Cleveland students enrolled in high-performing district and charter schools by the 2018-19 school year and improving Cleveland college enrollment and graduation rates.

The partnership
Starting Point serves as the coordinating agency helping families find high-quality preschool seats. Before students were placed in new and improved preschools, the task force created a roadmap and set of goals for the first few years of implementation. The group, comprised of representatives from CMSD, PNC Bank, Catholic Charities and a slew of other entities, scanned national best practices for preschool expansion, surveyed 400 Cleveland parents and held a focus group with 10 parents.
<span class="content-image-text">Students saying the The Pledge of Allegiance at St. Augustine Child Enrichment Center</span>Students saying the The Pledge of Allegiance at St. Augustine Child Enrichment Center

According to a PRE4CLE memo provided by Kelly, those parents identified school ratings and factors like staff training level and quality curriculum as most important to them. While proximity to their neighborhoods was listed as a less critical factor, just over one of every five polled parents said that distance and dropping off multiple children made it difficult to access preschool. About one in 10 of those parents take public transportation or walk to drop their children off at preschool.

The task force has since disbanded and evolved into the Early Childhood Compact, which is co-chaired by CMSD CEO Eric Gordon and Marcia Egbert, senior program officer for human services at the George Gund Foundation. The Compact serves as a critical complement to the Transformation Alliance and Higher Education Compact, which focus on K-12 and college readiness, respectively. Egbert described the group as the “community body and voice for holding feet to the fire to make PRE4CLE live up to its plan and expectations.”

“We feel such a responsibility to uphold that element of the Cleveland Plan,” Egbert continued. “For PRE4CLE to live up to its promise and its position as a core element of the Cleveland Plan, we really need to do everything possible to meet the goals that we set out for it.”

In the past three years, PRE4CLE secured $8.5 million in public funding from CMSD and the county and $900,000 from private entities. The original task force estimated the program would cost nearly $16 million in the 2014-15 school year and about $20 million in 2015-16, but Kelly said PRE4CLE didn’t anticipate spending or raising nearly that amount to reach its goal. Combined with $14.5 million going into preschools from CMSD levy funds, she believes the initiative is in a good place financially.

“It’s really encouraging and it wasn’t a given that we would be on track, but it’s because of a lot of hard work by a lot of people,” Egbert said. “First and foremost, it’s encouraging for the children and their families, but it’s also encouraging for the spirit of the Cleveland Plan. If PRE4CLE succeeds, it’s a real positive for the city.”

The public school, county, corporate and nonprofit representatives who embarked on the initiative last year relied on numerous studies that exemplified the importance of early learning. The PRE4CLE report, for example, cites research from the late Drs. Betty Hart and T.R. Risley stating that up to 90 percent of brain development occurs by the time a child is five years old.

The task force also made its case through studies by others like James Heckman, the Henry Schultz Distinguished Service Professor of Economics at The University of Chicago and Nobel Laureate in Economics, whose “Heckman Equation” showed the impact early childhood education can have on the economy. His analysis of the Perry Preschool project of the 1960s in Ypsilanti, Michigan showed a 7 -10 percent per-year return on investment with respect to school and career achievements and lower costs for remedial education, health care and criminal justice expenses. Heckman’s research also pointed to a previous study that uncovered $48,000 in benefits per child from half-day preschool for impoverished children attending the Chicago Child-Parent Center. The area reaped a $7 return-on-investment for every dollar spent on at-risk children. Twenty-year-old participants in that study were more likely to have finished high school and less likely to have been arrested.

“To not embrace that time period as one with tremendous potential for laying the markers for later life seemed like we would be missing the most important moment for opportunity,” Egbert said.

PNC Bank, The George Gund Foundation and the Cleveland Foundation contributed $900,000 in philanthropic funding to the initiative. The Gund Foundation’s $300,000 contribution represented nearly 10 percent of the overall educational grants it issued for 2014. Egbert said the Foundation’s board would consider renewing its PRE4CLE commitment in less than two weeks.

“We’re deeply committed, going forward,” she said. “We don’t count our chickens until they’re hatched, but if the past is any prelude, (the board is) extremely committed.”
What Quality Looks Like

Javon Smith was ecstatic that her son frequently returned home from Memorial’s pre-K program with new skills to show off. One day it was the ability to write his name, while other days he counted to 30 or higher. Still, it was Michael’s overall change in demeanor that impressed his mother.

The CMSD school on East 152nd Street, between Lake Shore Boulevard and Waterloo Road, seemed to unearth a wide-smiled, overly sociable Michael that Smith hadn’t seen before. Prior to preschool, Michael tried to remain the baby in the family, despite the arrival of a younger sister. Now, he’s more interested in introducing his sister to everybody he meets.

“He just used to be up under me,” Smith said. “(Teachers) told me he’s a nice boy, says ‘hi’ to everybody. I said, ‘oh my goodness, he doesn’t do that at home.’”

The social and emotional instruction that leads to that kind of change is part of what leads to PRE4CLE schools like Memorial achieving high ratings. The PRE4CLE plan defines high-quality preschool education in the same way that the State does – achieving a three-, four- or five-star rating in the Step Up to Quality system, administered by the Ohio Department of Education and the Ohio Department of Jobs and Family Services. Three-star characteristics include written, dated activity plans that are aligned to all of the state’s developmental domains in early learning and developmental standards and/ or K-12 standards, comprehensive developmental screenings and assessments for children, action plans for students’ areas for improvement and more.

Programs can earn additional points and, in turn, higher star ratings for hiring teachers and administrators with better degrees and professional development as well as better engagement with parents and community partners while maintaining low staff-to-child ratios. Annual, continuous improvement plans and written transition policies and practices are among the other traits that earn better ratings for a provider.

Kelly said PRE4CLE has identified 92 high-quality, public and private preschool providers as early adopters of the initiative. Moore’s program at St. Augustine Manor is one of them. The daily lesson plans and the focus on the educational, social and emotional needs of each child at the Detroit Avenue center shows that activities extend well beyond basic counting and learning the alphabet.

“When I have parents coming in inquiring and looking for a center, they’ll start asking these questions and they’ll say, ‘wow, at the other center, they just sit down and watch cartoons all day,’” Moore said.

Back on the East side, Smith revealed similar sentiments when comparing Michael’s experience at Memorial to his time at a daycare.

“He wasn’t really learning anything in my eyes,” Smith said of Michael, who will enter kindergarten this school year. “I felt that he could learn more by being in an actual classroom environment with other students.”

St. Augustine Manor Child Enrichment Center opened more than a dozen years ago within the St. Augustine Manor Health Ministries nursing home. It has expanded three times since then, with Moore’s goal of providing much more than daytime supervision for area children. The four-teacher staff’s tracking of social and emotional progress and extensive parental engagement earned the center a five-star Step Up to Quality rating, just like the Memorial program helped Smith’s now five-year-old son.

The Center offers 28 high-quality preschool slots with four openings now, but that number will rise to 10 once some of the students enter kindergarten. A large part of the center’s programming teaches preschoolers the basic communication skills and self expression that must precede academics.

“Can they communicate to you when you they’re frustrated? I know that words are limited, but they should be able to say, ‘I’m angry because you told me no,’” Moore said. “If they can’t even simply express that to you, then how do you expect them to sit down and write their name?

“If they can express to you how they’re feeling, they realize they have some ownership to themselves, then they have confidence … next thing you know, you see that growth. You see them say, ‘wow, I’ve got this’ because you’ve empowered them with their feelings and their independence.”

Preschool providers can also boost their ratings by identifying a learning issue early on and working with parents and local school district resources to get that student closer to readiness by kindergarten. Moore’s staff has rendered social and emotional services to children as young as six weeks. She recalls one child who started at St. Augustine at three months old who stuttered with her speech and struggled with comprehension. St. Augustine referred the girl to CMSD for speech therapy while she continued attending preschool. She tested positively out of speech therapy prior to beginning kindergarten. She is now preparing to enter fourth grade as student who receives ‘A’ and ‘B’ grades.

“The speech therapist even said if she had not gotten this when she did, she would have to receive speech in school. Typically, when they get to kindergarten and first grade, kids tend to stereotype more because they understand, so they tend to make fun of kids who have to get services,” Moore said. “When she started kindergarten, nobody knew that she already had services. If we had not caught this early on, where would she be now?”

“Would she still be stuttering, would she still be struggling?”

What’s next
Centers like St. Augustine receive recognition throughout the community as an early adopter of the standards PRE4CLE wants implemented into preschool slots throughout Greater Cleveland. That’s crucial because such centers are depending on PRE4CLE to help them keep enrollment up.

The PRE4CLE network hoped that Ohio lawmakers would include in the state budget they passed last week an additional $6 million to convert half-day preschool into full-day programming for 700 children, but that was not the case. In her testimony to the state’s Senate Finance Committee last month, Kelly estimated that nearly 80 percent of Cleveland’s 16,000 preschool-aged children were living in poverty. Just 16 percent of children entering the CMSD meet full readiness on the state’s kindergarten exams.

However, Cleveland is going to receive additional half-day preschool for some students, as well as reductions in child care co-pays and support for early childhood mental health for families as part of Gov. John Kasich’s budget. Kelly said PRE4CLE officials will continue to bid for local, state, federal and philanthropic dollars.

“We know that in order to really take the PRE4CLE plan to scale, we’re really going to need to leverage multiple funding streams,” Kelly said. “Early Childhood already does that, there’s many revenue streams that contribute to making it successful. We see one of our roles is really to increase awareness about the need in Cleveland and the strong strategy and commitment of our local community, and that’s why we think we are really poised to be successful.”

Moore held out hope that if the budget had included that $6 million it would have also assisted small childcare centers with teacher salaries, but that didn’t happen.

“Right now, daycare salaries are very low — they don’t get paid nearly what a teacher in a school district would,” said Moore, who oversees two PRE4CLE classrooms. “My teachers who have been getting educated and getting degrees will tend to leave me because I can’t pay them as much a school district would.”

Moore said her center received a monetary “thank you” gift as an early adopter, which helped buy some school supplies, but she’s not sure if any additional funds will come her center’s way.

“We’re the stepping stone, we’re the foundation,” she said. “There’s so much that we have to teach these kids when they’re young. We’re the root, and if we don’t make those roots strong, how are they going to succeed?”

A more comprehensive, neighborhood-based analysis will be released as part of the next PRE4CLE report later this summer. While the initiative placed 1,150 additional students in high-quality preschool seats, PRE4CLE also conducted a needs assessment with CRWU to figure out how to better coordinate the effort and which areas need those seats the most, Kelly said.

Last year’s report originally called for annex units in neighborhoods of need, but Kelly said the group decided to invest in longer-term capacity. PRE4CLE recently released a request for proposal to the early adopter network for classroom startup funding from the county, totaling about $220,000.

“One of the barriers for programs to expand can be the upfront costs of opening a new classroom— the equipment, paying the teachers while you’re licensing the classroom, etc.,” Kelly said. “You sort of have to get it up and standing before you can get it approved by the state to move forward.”

Kelly believes the RFPs will help open seven new classrooms, bringing better education to about 20 students in each room.

Because transportation remains a key barrier to families getting their children to high-quality preschool education, PRE4CLE has also been working with Cleveland Neighborhood Progress to figure out how to help three- and four-year-olds get to preschool. Kelly said PRE4CLE hopes to pilot some of those strategies next year. They could include a mix of public and private transportation, such as creating bus stops in front of quality providers.

An on-the-ground recruitment strategy will also help officials better identify who needs preschool access. Kelly said that PRE4CLE would partner with entities like libraries and the faith-based community, who already work with Cleveland families who may be looking for high-quality preschool education.

A standalone website is also in the works to improve upon the existing landing page on the CMSD website. The site will arrive alongside additional marketing and communications about the program.

“I feel like what we have done to date is just incredible,” Kelly said. “If you look at the communities across Ohio and across the nation, the commitment here is obvious.”

Brandon Baker
Brandon Baker

About the Author: Brandon Baker

Brandon Baker is a freelance journalist who has contributed articles to Freshwater Cleveland since 2014. His work has been featured by Scene, The News-Herald, Patch, EcoWatch and more. By day, he is a full-time research consultant with Burges & Burges Strategists, where he provides communications, messaging, strategic and research support for various public, private, and nonprofit entities in Ohio. In the fall, he enjoys working for the Cleveland Browns Scoreboard Operations team at FirstEnergy Stadium. Brandon is a graduate of The Ohio State University and enjoys traveling, exercising, the arts, volunteering, and spending time with family.