PRE4CLE and Cuyahoga County are on a mission to make Universal Pre-K truly universal in Cleveland

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Now that PRE4CLE is well on its way to the goal of helping more local preschool sites achieve high Step Up to Quality ratings—with a 110 percent increase since July 2016—the focus is on increasing funding to expand Cuyahoga County’s Universal Pre-Kindergarten (UPK) model to more of those high-quality programs.

“As part of our PRE4CLE Plan, we have made expanding UPK in the city of Cleveland one of our top priorities,” explains Katie Kelly, PRE4CLE’s executive director. “To be a UPK site, a program must be highly rated with three, four, or five [SUTQ] stars, and UPK layers on additional quality elements and support on top of that."

First launched in August 2007, Cuyahoga County’s UPK program helps local preschool programs level up by offering quality enhancements, ongoing professional development opportunities, and technical assistance. The program also provides scholarships to families living at or below 400 percent of the federal poverty level (a much more forgiving threshold than the state of Ohio’s requirement of 130 percent).

“[UPK] is about trying to make a new gold standard of quality in our preschool system, but also make it affordable for families,” says Rebekah Dorman, Director of the Cuyahoga County Office for Early Childhood.

Right now, there are 36 UPK providers in the city of Cleveland affiliated with PRE4CLE—a number that has risen exponentially in recent years, thanks to a $22.8 million investment of both public and private dollars led by Cuyahoga County and PNC Bank in 2016 (which doubled the number of high-quality seats throughout the county to approximately 4,000).

“We’ve been lucky to have county executives who have believed in the program and continue to expand it,” says Dorman, adding that Cuyahoga County is the first in the state of Ohio to offer UPK. “We’ve been able to provide funding to programs so that they can ramp up their quality level even higher.”

To that end, PRE4CLE has partnered with Cuyahoga County to generate more funding and increase the number of high-quality seats available to Cleveland’s children—paving the way for the city’s preschools to serve more low-income children. Get an inside look at two local programs that are doing just that.

Arbor Park

The team at Arbor Park Early Learning Center knows firsthand the difference that UPK can make. One of eight preschool programs in the Catholic Charities Diocese of Cleveland, Arbor Park is just entering its second year of offering UPK to its families, but according to Early Learning Programs director Linda Schettler, it’s already been a “huge game-changer.”

“It’s opened a lot of doors that wouldn’t have opened otherwise,” says Schettler. “The funding available to us now has helped us enhance an already-good program to be a great program.”

With the UPK funding, Arbor Park Head Start has been able to make a much-needed switch to Creative Curriculum (a research-based curriculum for early learning). The funding has also enabled the purchase of additional supplies and investment in new tablets, iPads, and Tadpoles technology (which enables the teachers to communicate and send photos to parents throughout the day).

“The biggest thing is that [the UPK funding] has allowed us to have a third teacher in each classroom, which has been phenomenal,” shares Schettler, adding that all of the elements combined have helped Arbor Park enhance its existing five-star SUTQ rating. “Without UPK funding, we would not have been able to do any of these things.”

Parent engagement is another big piece of the UPK model, and according to Arbor Park site administrator Cherie Weaver, the funding has enabled the center to provide food at its parent meetings (helping ramp up attendance from virtually no families to 18 families). The center also hosted its first daddy-daughter dance this year.

Though the center doesn’t charge tuition due to its affiliation as a Head Start program, Weaver says the UPK funding still helps offset costs for many Arbor Park families. “A lot of our parents who have co-pays can get discounted fees on a sliding scale, which is hugely helpful for those families,” shares Weaver.

Willard Head Start

Gloria Chambers was attending a 100-year-old’s birthday party when she heard a voice from across the room yell, “Mrs. Chambers!” As it turned out, the voice belonged to one of her Head Start students from 24 years ago, and he quickly followed the greeting with a hug and the assurance that Chambers had made a lasting difference in his life. “That was a moment I will always cherish and remember,” says Chambers.

As the site administrator for Willard Head Start (offered by the Council for Economic Opportunities of Greater Cleveland), Chambers has had no shortage of those moments throughout the years, and she’s proud of the many success stories that have come through the center. “When the children leave, I often hear how they have developed and moved to Major Work [CMSD’s Gifted Education program],” shares Chambers. “That always puts a smile on my face.”

According to Chambers, Willard Head Start has always been on the forefront of helping make more opportunities for its kids. The site was the first in the CEOGC fold to achieve a SUTQ five-star rating, and Chambers says that Willard Head Start started offering the UPK model almost a decade ago.

Currently, Willard Head Start serves 149 students ages three through five. Like Arbor Park, they have utilized the UPK funding to invest in Creative Curriculum sets, and families are able to apply for scholarships to offset their co-pays.

Chambers says that the staff also takes advantage of the various trainings available—for instance, they recently completed training on ReadyRosie (an engagement tool that uses short videos to show parents and kids interacting in ways that encourage positive development). “A teacher in a UPK classroom can choose from those videos when it connects to something going on in their curriculum,” explains Dorman.

Overall, Chambers says that being a PRE4CLE site that offers the UPK model has been a big draw for local families in its Cudell neighborhood and beyond. “When parents see a UPK logo, it sparks interest and attracts them—they come in knowing that we offer a step above regular education” she shares. “With five [SUTQ] stars hanging on the building, it’s a win-win situation all the way around.”

Jen Jones Donatelli
Jen Jones Donatelli

About the Author: Jen Jones Donatelli

As an enthusiastic CLE-vangelist, Jen Jones Donatelli enjoys diving headfirst into her work with FreshWater Cleveland. Upon moving back to Cleveland after 16 years in Los Angeles, Jen served as FreshWater's managing editor for two years (2017-2019) and continues her work with the publication as a contributing editor and host of the FreshFaces podcast.

When not typing the day away at her laptop, she teaches writing and creativity classes through her small business Creative Groove, as well as Literary Cleveland, Cleveland State University, and more. Jen is a proud graduate of Ohio University's E.W. Scripps School of Journalism.