Where do you go for the top news in Early Learning at the municipal level? Check out “5 Questions for the Mayor,” where we’ll explore the top Early Learning challenges and successes in cities across the nation. We’re thrilled to partner with the National League of Cities on this new series.
Dayton, Ohio is a beautiful city on the Great Miami River with a fascinating history and a legacy of innovation. It’s one of the proud labor cities that took a devastating hit of manufacturing job losses when anchor companies left the city, including General Motors and National Cash Register. In this interview, Mayor Nan Whaley discusses what she loves most about Dayton, the critical importance of early education and how the signature values of the people of Dayton—grit and resilience—are helping the city recover from the manufacturing downturn, the opioid crisis and in 2019, catastrophic tornadoes and a mass shooting. A recent documentary about Dayton, “American Factory,” recently won the Oscar for Documentary (Feature).
1. You’ve been mayor of Dayton since 2014, following two terms as a City Commissioner. What do you love most about your city?
57% more students in the Dayton Public School Districts who attended Preschool Promise sites were ready for kindergarten than children who weren’t enrolled in our program.
I really love how gritty and resilient it is. This grittiness is something I saw following the tornadoes, mass shooting and other issues that happened in 2019, a particularly tough year. This strong culture of Dayton has helped our city recover, and the generosity of our people and communities has been really beautiful to see.
Also, Dayton has its own identity. It has a history of innovation, yes, but it also has a history of believing that no one will come in and fix it, so we work to fix it on our own. You can see it in our response to tragedies. After the shooting, our community raised $3.8 million for the victims to support people who lost loved ones and for those who were injured.
Our people are very proud of what this community is accomplishing. We know it has its challenges, but we’re working together to do the best for our community. You can see it in our communities’ demand of action of our state and federal legislators around gun legislation.
Come see our city and you’ll learn how our communities have come together.
2. You decided to call Dayton home after attending the University of Dayton. What has education meant for you?
My parents went to college but didn’t graduate. They made education a key goal for my brother and me. They wanted us to graduate college. They reinforced that every night at dinner, beginning for us at the age of seven when we had discussions about college, where we’d go to college and when we’d graduate. So, we are first-generation college graduates, and for both of us, it provided the gateway from the working class. I still consider myself a working class kid but getting a college degree has opened doors. My parents didn’t have that opportunity and it’s amazing to see how much more stable our lives are because of our college degrees.
3. Tip O’Neill taught us that “all politics is local.” And you have said that the most effectively functioning part of government is at the local level. Tell me more about how mayors are on the front lines of key national issues like education, housing/homelessness, economic restructuring, gun control and technology.
Because of the gridlock both in our state legislatures and in Washington DC, we’re seeing a renaissance of local leadership. It’s out of requirement more than choice because if you have national issues that are affecting your community, like education and housing, there’s no help coming from the statehouses and DC. We have to figure it out locally. And I know from the United States Conference of Mayors that amazing efforts are happening at the local level, including Universal Pre-K and stopping evictions so people can have a higher quality of life. This is a big change from the 1970s when there was significant help from Washington, DC. Now, “locally” is where democracy is happening.
4. Regarding early learning, what are your city’s top challenges and how are you meeting them?
We decided, particularly around the test scores and kindergarten reading readiness, that we must prepare our kids for kindergarten. In the continuum of education, the Third Grade Reading Guarantee is a real predictor for how kids do long term. So, we knew that if we prioritized investments in preschool, we could really start moving the needle on the zero to five range.
We’re now in our third full year of our Preschool Promise program and we’re making great strides just by investing in classrooms for four-year-olds. It has had great impact on children ages zero to three as well because the program includes the whole building, and we’ve seen that all the kids’ test scores go up because of this work. Fifty-seven percent more students in the Dayton Public School Districts who attended Preschool Promise sites were ready for kindergarten than children who weren’t enrolled in our program.
5. What will it take to make Dayton an early learning city?
Dayton has invested quite a bit in this early learning area and we’re continuing to do the work. Right now, our focus is four-year-olds but we’re working to expand it for all children ages zero to five.
We’ve seen the city and the county—the local government—step up in meaningful ways. The city passed an income tax to fund our high-quality preschool efforts. Our hope is that it would be matched by the state or by the federal government, but we haven’t seen that. So we’re going at it alone.
And we have small partnerships, including with Dolly Parton’s Imagination Library, which gifts free, high-quality books to children from birth until they begin school. But we don’t have any major partners in this work when it comes to state and national funding. We’ve gotten a little bit of state funding, which we’re hoping to leverage in ways for national partnerships, and greater reach and impact. I think that’s the next frontier frankly, and to see more national and state leadership around preschool. That will make a big difference for Dayton.