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After pandemic setbacks, new plan calls for big investment in Cleveland preschools

PRE4CLE recently updated its plan, originally put in place in 2016, to better guide the Cleveland area on improving its preschool offerings coming out of the doldrums of the pandemic.
PRE4CLE's report calls for major investments to improve access to high-quality preschool and prepare Cleveland's children for kindergarten.

Cleveland’s preschools — and families with young children — were hit hard by the pandemic, and the numbers bear that out, according to a new report from Cleveland nonprofit PRE4CLE.

Enrollment in “high-quality” preschools —defined as schools that receive between three and five stars from the state’s ranking system — has been set back significantly, and is still 23% lower than it was before things pandemic shutdowns began in March 2020, according to the report.

PRE4CLE also reported that the number of children entering the Cleveland Metropolitan School district who demonstrate, or approach, readiness for kindergarten dropped from about 58% in 2019 to about 50% in 2021.

A workforce shortage among childcare professionals also is challenging providers, according to the report.

Despite those challenges, the report notes positive progress in a number of areas, including a steady rise in the number of high-quality preschool providers in the Cleveland area, from 71 in 2014 to 227 in 2022, and a rising number of children being well-prepared for kindergarten and beyond.

A charter in PRE4CLE's plan update that shows the number of seats for children at high-quality preschools in Cleveland over time.
A charter in PRE4CLE's plan update that shows the number of seats for children at high-quality preschools in Cleveland over time.

PRE4CLE's updated planand a new snapshot of data — were released today. The report details ideas for achieving more access for all Cleveland children to stellar preschools.

The stakes couldn’t be higher, said Katie Kelly, executive director of PRE4CLE. She said attending a high-quality preschool can make miles of difference for children, immediately and in the future.

“There’s a difference between children who had access to high-quality early education and children who didn't, as far as their participation in the workforce, their interaction with the criminal justice system and many other indicators of happiness and success,” Kelly said. “And so that's really why our community has focused on early education, because we know what happens in those first five years really determines so much of what's able to happen for the rest of that child's life.”

The plan calls for investments and new and continuing work between local partners — including CMSD and the area nonprofit Starting Point — in six key areas:

  • Expansion of and access to high-quality preschools in Cleveland. This category would mean helping fund renovation of existing preschools as well as new sites in neighborhoods that need them. The plan also calls for expansion of Cuyahoga County’s universal pre-kindergarten program.
  • Increasing enrollment in good preschools. This would mostly revolve around improved communication to get the word out about schools.
  • Improving and maintaining the quality of local preschools. The plan calls for completing at least 30 renovation projects at existing sites by 2026.
  • Improved communication with parents and stakeholders.
  • A renewed focus on advocacy for issues related to improving the quality of preschools, like increasing wages for workers. The report also calls for increased eligibility for state-funded child care subsidies to at least 200% of the federal poverty level. Currently only for families at the poverty level can access such subsidies.
  • Increased funding for preschool providers and initiatives. This would mean going after philanthropic support for operations and implementing the PRE4CLE plan, as well as advocating for additional resources from local, state and federal sources.

Kelly said the time is right, because of new city and county leadership, for an update of the PRE4CLE plan, which was originally published in 2016.
County Executive Chris Ronayne, whose term began last month, and Cleveland Mayor Justin Bibb, who took over City Hall last year, both have highlighted early childhood education as a priority.

Cleveland and many other large urban cities in Ohio have low rates of children who are ready for kindergarten, reflecting, experts say, the lack of resources available to children who live in poverty.

According to 2021-2022 statewide data provided by Kelly, 14.7% of all CMSD kindergartners demonstrated kindergarten readiness (which refers to their performance on Ohio’s assessment of areas such as literacy and motor development), while 32.1% were described as “approaching” readiness for kindergarten.

This chart, using 2021-2022 data, shows the percentage of children in the Cleveland area attending high-quality preschools.
PRE4CLE's Kindergarten Readiness Snapshot
This chart, using 2021-2022 data, shows the percentage of children in the Cleveland area attending high-quality preschools.

Childcare teachers in Cuyahoga County earn an average of $13 per hour, according to the plan, a low wage that is driving the workforce shortage.

"Adequate and consistent state and federal funding is critical to increasing compensation for the early childhood field, while also increasing affordability for families," the plan reads.

Ohio has one of the lowest eligibility levels in the nation for childcare subsidies, capped at 142% of the federal poverty level. According to the plan, the average private-pay cost of childcare is $11,000 per child in Cuyahoga County.

All CMSD families currently have access to free preschools, while Cuyahoga County provides scholarships for parents to send their children to highly-rated preschools as long as they earn less than 400% of the federal poverty level. PRE4CLE, in its updated plan, calls for expansion of access to either program, noting that every three- and four-year-old in Cleveland should be included.

Kelly said PRE4CLE has a building renovation strategy in place, with funding. The Cleveland Early Learning Spaces Initiative has about $1.29 million in federal funding and about $2 million from the George Gund Foundation and the Gund Family. But increasing funding for that initiative will be key, she said, because it is a way to improve those sites’ quality by upgrading safety features, layout and amenities, including outdoor play spaces.

Kelly said she hopes the plan galvanizes local leaders and the community to work together to make progress.

“This PRE4CLE plan is our guiding document as a PRE4CLE initiative, not just for our direct work, but also really bringing together the school district, the city, the county Starting Point and a whole host of other community partners who are working towards achieving these goals together,” she said.

Conor Morris is the education reporter for Ideastream Public Media.