Preschool Promise creates a pathway to academic achievement for local children who need it most

The road to academic achievement begins when a child is barely out of diapers.

Much work has been done to determine the greatest contributing factors to school readiness and academic success. Among the recurrent factors, one variable seems particularly common among lower-income children — access to high-quality preschool.

With the price tag on quality education increasing, many families find the cost of preschool simply unworkable. State and federal funds, while helpful, are limited. So, economically vulnerable children begin to lag behind academically even before their first day of kindergarten.

In 2016, research organization The RAND Corporation published a report that documented the state of early education programs in Cincinnati. The report was supported by various Cincinnati stakeholders who were working together to determine the best way to improve public preschool options for the city’s most vulnerable children. It explored, among other things, the preschool options available in Cincinnati and statistics about those enrolled in preschool city-wide. It also offered a host of potential solutions for increasing both the quality of providers and enrollment.

In November of 2016, Cincinnati taxpayers voted in support of a five-year, $33M tax levy that would increase access to high-quality preschools within Cincinnati Public Schools’ jurisdiction.

Cincinnati Preschool Promise was birthed as an initiative to leverage these CPS tax dollars and the resources of other local stakeholders for improving preschool options city-wide. The nonprofit helps bridge the access gap between vulnerable children and high-quality private and public preschools.

Cincinnati Preschool Promise is now two and a half years into its five-year funding window. Leveraging an annual $15M of taxpayer money, it has three major initiatives — helping local preschools achieve high-rating standards, providing educator grants to improve education quality and increase job retention, and supporting families through tuition assistance.

Transforming a preschool from start to finish

TOTally Kids Learning Center is a community-based preschool provider in the Western Hills area of Cincinnati. The center — its facility, staff, and students — is truly a Preschool Promises success story.

In July of 2019, TOTally Kids achieved a five-star rating in the Ohio Department of Education’s Step Up To Quality assessment program. But it was not always so highly rated. When current owner Cheryl Spencer purchased the business a few years ago and re-opened it under new management, TOTally Kids had only a one-star rating.

Spencer was contacted by Cincinnati Preschool Promise and was invited to apply for quality improvement dollars to help improve her center’s rating. She took the opportunity and says the Preschool Promise initiative changed her facility from the inside out.

The facility itself reaped the initial benefit of those quality improvement dollars. Spencer purchased new materials and resources to make the facility more attractive to potential parents. She then sent her staff to receive educational training.

“What Preschool Promise has done,” she says, “is it has given us community exposure and opened us to other community resources.”

Once TOTally Kids achieved the five-star rating, she explains, it was eligible for more state funds per student, which means updated facilities and better resources. The improved programming quickly and directly benefited her students and their families. Soon, Spencer began inviting outside programming for a more robust education for her young pupils, providing experiences that her students might not otherwise have. They now have access to things like art, dance classes, and yoga.

The five-star rating and the subsequent increase in State funds means Spencer’s school is also attractive to more highly qualified and credentialed teachers. (TOTally Kids has 11 employees; nine are full-time.) She explains that better teachers shop around for jobs at higher-rated providers because they can offer more incentives to their staff — things like wage increases and training opportunities. Courting a more qualified staff is worth the investment.

There are 53 children currently enrolled at TOTally Kids. Twenty-four of them are preschoolers. Rather than simple, base-level childcare, her preschool staff is engaged in lesson planning and are knowledgeable about assessments and child development. With increased education, higher degrees, and more investment, she says, “everyone’s expectations are greater.”

“There are a lot of centers that do well with licensing but don’t address any of the children’s educational and developmental needs,” Spencer explains. “But the transition period from preschool to kindergarten is crucial. And it’s not just about education, it’s also social and emotional development.”

Knowing that school readiness begins in preschool, Spencer wants her learning center to be a place where students are adequately prepared for this significant transition to elementary school. That’s why she continues to partner with Cincinnati Preschool Promise.

Growing up to Five Stars

The majority of TOTally Kids’ students come from the immediate neighborhood or other nearby West Side communities. Some preschool students, like Kensingtin Camper and Alliyah Battle, have been enrolled at the center long enough that their parents have experienced its transformation in real time.

Three year-old Kensingtin Camper has been enrolled at TOTally Kids for about two years. When he was a young toddler, his mother Kennisha was looking for a new childcare situation and spotted the center while driving by. Last year, she paid the daycare tuition cost out of pocket. During the summer, though, she withdrew Kensingtin — as she’d done the summer before — to free up the tuition money to pay for her older daughter’s summer camp during her school break.

“I always take him out [of daycare] in the summertime,” she explains,” because I can’t afford for both my daughter to go to summer camp and him to go to daycare.”

This past fall, when it was time for her daughter to go back to school and Kensingtin to head to preschool, she hoped to enroll him back at TOTally Kids. Among other reasons, their open hours (6 a.m.–6 p.m.) work perfectly for her schedule.

“I didn’t get to put my daughter in preschool because the programs they had then were half days and crazy hours. I’m a full-time employee. I couldn’t pick her up mid-day and take her to a second place.”

But Camper was afraid she might not be able to pay Kensingtin’s preschool tuition at TOTally Kids this year. The cost, she says, was rising and she was going through a job change with a shift in hours (and income). She’d never qualified before for tuition assistance because her pre-tax income was always a little too high — she has worked in nursing since 2012 and in the medical field since 2008 — but TOTally Kids had just signed on to participate in the Preschool Promise tuition assistance program for the 2019–2020 school year. The timing seemed perfect to reapply.

“When they told me they would be able to help me, I was shocked,” she remembers. “It was a blessing. To be able to take him to school and not have to worry about making that payment was helpful.”

Elizabeth Westbrook’s 4 yr-old daughter, Aaliyah Battle, is also enrolled at TOTally Kids’ preschool program. Westbrook enrolled her, initially, because of the center’s convenient location to her home. She’s been there for two years.

“She loved it, so I loved it,” Westbrook explains.

Since then, she’s watched the TOTally Kids Learning Center change and improve over time in both large and small ways. In her opinion, one of the best changes was when the preschool became a uniform school in 2018. Westbrook strongly supports the school uniform policy.

Center director Spencer promoted the uniform policy as being “more conducive for a learning environment” because children don’t have the temptation to compare themselves based on clothing. Not all parents were keen on the change, but Westbrook was.

“I love the fact that they get to wear a uniform now. It is beneficial for people who don’t have much money,” (Uniforms are available to borrow if a family cannot provide them for their children.)

Battle will begin kindergarten next fall. Her mother is not yet sure where she’ll be attending, but she feels she’ll be adequately prepared.

As a part of TOTally Kids’ educational model, the preschoolers are sent home with daily homework and flashcards for practice, which keeps their parents aware of their progress. Aaliyah’s language skills, her pronunciation, even her handwriting and number recognition, Westbrook says, are right on target.

“Things are really starting to come together now,” she says.

Big promises; consistent results

Chara Fisher JacksonCincinnati Preschool Promise’s Executive Director Chara Fisher Jackson wants to give every child in Cincinnati two years of attendance in a high-quality preschool. Preschool is different from daycare, she explains. It provides a complete learning environment, both academically as well as socially/emotionally. Citing the RAND report from 2016, she says that other initiatives have proved ineffective in preparing children for academic success.

“We had not seen a marked change in kindergarten readiness in years,” she explains. “So we were now asking, ‘How can Cincinnati be a game-changer?’”

The research shows that high-quality preschool is a key variable to success. Especially for low income kids, it can mean the difference between future success and future struggle. This is why Cincinnati stakeholders decided that increasing access to preschool was an obvious localized solution to a nationwide problem and pushed for the 2016 tax levy.

What has happened in the time since?

In the 2018–2019 school year, 99 Cincinnati preschools participated in Cincinnati Preschool Promises’s tuition assistance program, with 1,750 students receiving tuition support. The average student received $5,400 in assistance. (For reference, tuition for a full-day preschool in CPS’s system is $7,000 for the school year.)

Every assisted family is different and Preschool Promise’s program is different from other financial assistance programs in that is “the last dollar in.” That means that it’s the final option for assistance for families after they’ve exhausted all other available tuition assistance.

In 2019, the program was extended to families at 250% of federal poverty level, which means working families with a consistent but moderate income may qualify. There is a graduated scale for parents based on income, plus other available resources. With this model, for some families, the program could provide the final $90 in tuition assistance. For others, it could pay the full cost.

Both Westbrook and Camper, for example, work full-time in the medical field — Camper is an LPN and Westbrook is an EEG tech. But, for single parents like them, tuition is often still unaffordable.

In addition, finding a preschool that is open during long working hours is difficult. Private, community-based centers like TOTally Kids are a perfect solution for working parents. With Preschool Promise’s tuition assistance, centers like this are more accessible for kids like Kensingin and Aaliyah.

Fisher Jackson says there are still plenty of open seats in Cincinnati preschools and part of her job is helping fill them with the children who would benefit the most, “Particularly kids whose families have the greatest economic struggle,” she says.

But filling the seats is only one part of the equation. The preschools themselves must be held to a higher standard. In the 2018–2019 program year, Cincinnati Preschool Promise enrolled 111 institutions — like TOTally Kids Learning Center — in its quality improvement program. The program’s standards are based on the Ohio Department of Education’s Step Up To Quality rating system, which is an assessment tool for all publicly funded early education programs.

Any provider with a zero-, one-, or two-star rating can apply for the program and, beginning in 2020, there will be a special initiative to help higher-rated schools maintain their rating. The quality improvement program walks providers through scaled improvements to increase their ratings, providing support, assessments, training, and coaching along the way. During the 2018–2019 program year, 51 providers improved their rating with Preschool Promise’s help.

The nonprofit also supports individual educators and staff through teacher assistance grants. Fifty-seven teachers from 30 different preschools received these grants in 2018–2019. The $2,000 grants were made available to lead teachers working in community-based preschool programs that had achieved a three- to five-star rating. These grants are helping improve equity in wages, as well as aiding in recruitment and retention of quality teachers in preschools that serve lower-income children.

Fisher Jackson has been the executive director of Preschool Promise since October 2019, when she left her interim CEO position at Urban League of Greater Southwest Ohio. She manages a staff of seven full-time employees plus contractors and consultants, and works with a board of managers that includes representatives from partner agencies like CPS, United Way, and Promise Forward.

Jackson understands that her organization has made some big promises to Cincinnati taxpayers and she doesn’t take that lightly.

“We’re committed to being good stewards of the tax-payer dollars and leveraging every resource available to the parent,” she explains. “Our most important partner is every taxpayer in the community, everyone who voted for this tax levy.”

To that end, Cincinnati Preschool Promise has multiple key partners in the public, private, and nonprofit sectors. It is a truly cooperative initiative with a single goal: “Helping find the best preschool situation for you and your child.” 

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Liz McEwan is a proud wife, mama, urbanite, musician and blogger. Follow her at The Walking Green and on twitter at @thewalkinggreen.