When the Cleveland public schools developed a comprehensive plan to transform the way the district delivers education to 40,000 students, the focus was on ensuring that all students would have the knowledge and skills they need for a lifetime of success, starting in preschool.
Cleveland, like many other urban school districts, must work hard to find ways to improve attendance, graduation rates, and academic performance. But the earliest learners often get neglected in such plans. Just two years ago, more than half the children who entered kindergarten in the Cleveland Metropolitan School District, or CMSD, were unprepared because they had little exposure to high-quality preschool programs. PRE4CLE, a plan that began in 2014 to provide high-quality preschool to all children in Cleveland, was developed through a public-private partnership created to address major preschool challenges and complement the district’s education goals.
The decision to focus on preschoolers was a strategic one. An overwhelming body of evidence shows that high-quality early-learning opportunities from birth to age 5 give children a foundation for greater achievement in school and life. The U.S. Department of Education reports that 90 percent of a child’s brain connections are developed by the time the child turns 5. With greater access to high-quality preschool, students are more likely to score better on achievement tests and earn higher salaries in adulthood, according to a 2014 study released by the White House. And the Carolina Abecedarian Project, which offered early-childhood education for poor children and measured the outcomes over decades, reported in a 2012 follow-up study that its students were four times more likely than those who did not receive early-childhood education opportunities to graduate from college by age 30. A 2014 report found that those students were also at a lower risk for cardiovascular and other diseases.
In other words, starting a child’s education in kindergarten isn’t early enough. School districts cannot remediate their way out of the barriers to success that children face; instead, they have to help students arrive ready to succeed in kindergarten.
But nationally, there aren’t enough high-quality programs to go around. And the preschool openings in those programs often remain unclaimed because of barriers that include affordability, physical access, or parents’ underappreciation of the value of high-quality early education. In 2013, Cleveland had 12,400 children ages 3 and 4 and only 3,530 high-quality preschool openings to serve them; yet, only 2,800 children attended such programs.
But after one year of PRE4CLE’s expansion plan, enrollment in Cleveland’s high-quality preschool is up by 10 percent. There are now 1,200 more children in programs with research-based curricula, trained teachers and staff, and an emphasis on imaginative play. Even more encouraging, 80 percent of those children are on pace for kindergarten readiness.
So, how can this work for other communities?
• Start with an inclusive planning process. Localized research and data can help inform decisions about meeting the needs of children and families. Our planning team interviewed business and community leaders and conducted national research about other preschool programs to address enrollment, program administration, teacher qualifications, funding, advocacy, and classroom-quality standards. By engaging a wide array of partners and families to create the plan, schools districts can hit the ground running with community buy-in and shared goals.
• Leverage existing resources. Don’t build something completely new. Take advantage of what is already working. There are models for outstanding preschool programs to replicate in states such as California, Ohio, and Oklahoma. Instead of reinventing the wheel, partner with regional preschool-expansion programs already in place. We embraced an existing mixed-delivery model for preschool with public and private, school-year and calendar-year, and full-time and part-time programs to develop a plan that would work for all families.
With greater access to high-quality preschool, students are more likely to score better on achievement tests and earn higher salaries in adulthood."
• Strategize funding. It’s important for stakeholders to ask how they can work together to provide the money children and programs need. Within a year, PRE4CLE raised $8.5 million in public funds and $900,000 in private philanthropic aid to support the plan. Seed dollars are necessary to strengthen the infrastructure for high-quality preschool and pay for the expansion of enrollment opportunities, research-based communication campaigns aimed at families, and continued advocacy for long-term funding.
• Remember that high-quality preschool isn’t a cure-all. It may take cooperation between outside agencies and school districts to put a framework in place to help children achieve. To guarantee future academic achievement, commit to a more efficient system for transferring student information from one grade level or classroom to the next. We improved the transfer of pupils’ academic and behavioral information from the preschool program to the kindergarten classroom, and, in some instances, all the way through the 3rd grade.
• Create equal footing for enrollment and expansion. Consider engaging community-based partners and early-learning providers to coordinate and expand outreach to families. Craft a plan to address needs in every neighborhood, focusing on the neighborhoods where there aren’t enough quality programs to meet demand. Talk to parents about how to find the right preschool for each child through door-to-door conversations in targeted neighborhoods, listings of openings in local papers, and individual follow-up phone calls to families.
• Don’t sacrifice quality. Quality requires resources to help programs improve. Connect program providers to technical and financial assistance to support research-based curricula and the purchase of new classroom tools, and to offer professional development for staff members.
• Build accountability and partnerships. A governing body is essential to provide checks and balances and to oversee the implementation of a plan. The Cleveland Early Childhood Compact, a partnership to facilitate the program, brings together representatives from the school district, city and county government, the business community, the teachers’ union, faith-based organizations, and early-childhood experts.
The involvement of a variety of leaders, including those outside the local government and the school district, reinforces the idea that the plan belongs to the entire community. It also provides many points of view to make sure decisions are in the children’s best interest.
• Track progress. Establishing clear benchmarks related to enrollment gives the ability to track the social, emotional, and academic growth of individual children and report how the program influences all facets of children’s development.
Rebuilding the education system should start with the youngest students because a higher quality of early-childhood education maximizes learning during a key window of development. It sets the foundation for a child’s short- and long-term success in school, work, and life.
School districts, communities, and invested partners should work together to ensure all parts of the education pipeline are strong enough to provide a developmental foundation that improves children’s ability to learn, contribute, and thrive in preschool and beyond.