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Pandemic May Provide A Chance To Rethink Early Learning In Ohio

Students in one of The Centers' Glenville Center classrooms. [The Centers / Facebook]
children's feet in a tight circle

The upheaval caused by the pandemic may provide an opportunity to rethink Ohio's approach to early education.

Early education advocates such as Shannon Jones, executive director of Groundwork Ohio, say that for once, money doesn’t seem to be the main challenge for early education. The combination of stimulus money, local grants and state spending offers an opportunity to re-envision the patchwork of early-education programs.

“Are we going to squander the opportunity by not thinking about what young children really need for lifelong success?” Jones asked.

“I kind of agree and disagree with the statement,” said  Eric Morse, CEO and president of The Centers for Families and Children in Cleveland, operating seven early learning centers and serving about 1,000 kids each year.

Morse agrees that there currently might be more funding flexibility for organizations providing early education, but funding flexibility can’t fix the myriad challenges providers face. As an example, the need is high, and waiting lists are long, even when capacity isn’t limited to 60 percent as it has been during the pandemic. 

“If the child is in a high-quality early learning center like ours, 89 percent of the kids who leave our centers are ready for kindergarten. If you look at the state, only 60 percent of kids are ready, and if you look at Cleveland, we’re talking like in the 30 percents,” Morse said. “And the patchwork — it’s almost as complicated as like sending your kid to college. I mean, you’ve got Head Start funds coming, you have Pre4CLE, you have universal pre-kindergarten vouchers that are coming in from the state that are TANF [Temporary Assistance for Needy Families] funded, you have grants. To help a family figure out ‘how am I going to send my kid to pre-school,’ it’s like you have to do a FAFSA [Free Application for Federal Student Aid, for college-bound students].”

Morse said there needs to be a statewide approach to early learning, to get away from that patchwork of funding sources.

But for lower income families, access to education is only part of the challenge. The pandemic prompted The Centers to invest in online programming, which will likely stay beyond the pandemic. But internet access is still a barrier for manly local families. 

And access to iPads or internet hotspots — which was increased during the pandemic — won’t solve everything.

“Doing that when a family is dealing with having very low income, and the crises that occur in someone’s life, make it very difficult for that to be effective,” Morse said. “The other big thing was most of our families are working, but they’re working low-paid jobs. They’re also essential workers, so when we went down to shutting down, I mean their ability to get to work and the likelihood that they may lose their job because they weren’t able to get their kid into care was significantly higher.”

Wrap-around social services are essential to helping children and families navigating the earliest years, Morse said. Those are services that The Centers offers as a Head Start provider. He said his organization is beginning to move toward a two-generational model of service.

“We’re going to provide access to all of those services in a comprehensive way with the goal of eventually having a child come to us either as an infant, or even working with a pregnant mom, that by the time that family leaves us when that kid goes to kindergarten, that family is out of poverty,” Morse said. “That we can leverage all our services — early learning, workforce, health services — to help lift that family up.”

Morse said even though services like this are expensive, they will save money long term.

“If kids are ready for kindergarten, that solves a whole lot of down-the-line problems for the family obviously, most importantly, but for the state, for us as tax payers,” he said. “This is a very worthy investment.”

Tony Ganzer has reported from Phoenix to Cairo, and was the host of 90.3's "All Things Considered." He was previously a correspondent with the Swiss Broadcasting Corporation, covering issues like Swiss banks, Parliament, and refugees. He earned an M.A. in International Relations (University of Leicester); and a B.Sc. in Journalism (University of Idaho.) He speaks German, and a bit of French.