Editor’s Note: The Early Learning Nation Studio recently attended the 2022 National League of Cities’ City Congressional Conference where we spoke with early learning researchers, policymakers, and practitioners. The full collection of video conversations can be found here.
PRE4CLE is Cleveland’s approach to expanding high quality preschool access across the city. The program began in 2014 and connected the community, county, school district, teachers, local philanthropy and of course, local government. Now they’re launching So Cleveland Early Learning Spaces, a focused effort to improve facilities in order to improve the learning environment. As Michelle Connavino, PRE4CLE’s Director of Communication & Special Initiatives, explains: It’s all part of Cleveland’s goal to ensure greater access for all three and four year olds throughout the city.
Chris Riback: Michelle, thanks so much for joining us. Welcome to the studio.
Michelle Connavino: Thanks so much for having me.
Chris Riback: What is PRE4CLE? Why was it needed? What’s the inspiration?
Michelle Connavino: So PRE4CLE is Cleveland’s plan to expand high quality preschool access across the city of Cleveland, Ohio. It started in 2014 as part of the Cleveland Public Schools Transformation Plan. So in that plan, the mayor of the city of Cleveland along with the CEO of the school district identified ways to improve student achievement in the city of Cleveland. One of those ways was through expanding access to high quality early learning. And so PRE4CLE was born out of that plan to focus especially on those three and four year olds, making sure that there’s more access available to all three and four year olds throughout the city of Cleveland. And we’ve been working ever since then toward that goal.
Chris Riback: Talk to me about the coordination. I assume that you are having to coordinate across different levels of government. Private, public, nonprofit, you’re bringing a lot of different folks together. How does that happen, particularly in a period when it’s tough to get folks to agree on very much these days?
Michelle Connavino: Yes. We’ve been incredibly fortunate. From the start of PRE4CLE, it really was a community-wide initiative that brought together people from the city of Cleveland, the county, the school district.
Chris Riback: Labor as well, no?
Michelle Connavino: Yes, labor. Our Teachers Union was part of it. Philanthropy. My gosh.
Chris Riback: [crosstalk] Really all of Cleveland, sounds like.
Michelle Connavino: Yes. Head Start. It really was. It was pretty remarkable. And that has really allowed us to, one, create an early childhood system through PRE4CLE and a lot of our partners, especially our Child Care Resource and Referral Agency and our schools that… So it created a plan that is not dependent on any one leader. So it’s a little less…
Chris Riback: Takes the politics out of it, perhaps.
Michelle Connavino: Yes. Absolutely. And I think the second thing that it did is that by bringing all of those partners together, we ensured that we weren’t duplicating things that other organizations were already doing well. So our Resource and Referral Agency, which is called Starting-Point in Cuyahoga County, which is where Cleveland is, they’re really good at the technical assistance and support for providers, for preschool providers and childcare providers that ensure that they reach those high quality standards in our state QRIS system. So they already have that. So we didn’t need to put that in place. We can just support them to do that, and then bring those providers in to be part of PRE4CLE. So it’s been just outstanding in a lot of ways.
Chris Riback: What are Cleveland Early Learning Spaces?
Michelle Connavino: Yes. So Cleveland Early Learning Spaces is a new program that we’re starting right now, actually. And-
Chris Riback: Breaking news on Early Learning Nation Studio.
Michelle Connavino: [crosstalk] Breaking news. Absolutely. We’re having our launch in just a few weeks. But we, actually pre-pandemic even, in 2018, 2019, started looking really deeply at what preschool providers need in their facilities. And that actually was born out of ongoing data that we look at twice a year, neighborhood by neighborhood in the city of Cleveland. What is the need for preschool? How many children live in each neighborhood? How many high quality preschool seats are available? How many lower quality seats are available that we could raise to quality? How many kids are enrolled in those seats? And we identified a few neighborhoods that actually needed new seats. And so this all started because we thought maybe we need to build some new preschools.
And then we thought, well, some of these community-based preschools that are already in place because of the way that financing works in childcare have not had the dollars to put toward maintenance and renovations that they really need. And so we were able to start a project where we received a grant from The George Gund Foundation and also from Gordon Gund himself to start this project. And so we’re giving providers $100,000 in a grant to do renovations. On top of that, we are working with IFF out of Chicago to provide an owner’s rep, to actually shepherd the construction project through to the end and work with the contractors, and then also professional development to help grow the capacity for this ongoing over the long-term.
Chris Riback: And as I understand, I mean, you’re talking about environmental health and safety, organization and layout, interior finishes and design, and gross motor and outdoor play space. I mean, you’re talking about reinventing these spaces outdoor to in, from top to bottom.
Michelle Connavino: Absolutely. And so some of these sites, when we did our initial assessment, we found some lead paint in some sites. We found some asbestos in some sites. We found sites that… A lot of sites need new roofs. So it’s some of all of that, but it’s also about when you’re in an early childhood classroom. Is there natural light? Are the colors conducive to learning and making sure that kids’ brains are processing what they need to and aren’t being distracted by clutter or whatever? So it’s a little bit of everything, really.
Chris Riback: And what has been the take up of PRE4CLE? And how successful has it been or where have the challenges been?
Michelle Connavino: PRE4CLE, we started in 2014. In our first five years, enrollment in high quality preschool in the city of Cleveland increased by 72%. So it’s pretty significant. And then COVID hit. So I mean, we could talk about the challenges of COVID forever.
Chris Riback: Yes.
Michelle Connavino: But I think our biggest challenge that we’re seeing, and I’m sure that you’re probably hearing this over and over today, is the early childhood workforce. And at this point, what we are seeing is that there are classrooms in Cleveland that are sitting unused and sitting empty because we don’t have teachers to fill those. And we don’t have teachers because the wages are not high enough and people have the opportunity to move into other professions right now. Early childhood teachers are also working with little kids every day who aren’t vaccinated, who may not follow masking as well as older kids do.
So they’re in a high exposure field. And then also, it’s just been incredibly hard on these providers. And they’ve had to open and close and whatever, figure out all sorts of challenges through COVID that we’ve all been figuring out, all while taking care of and teaching our youngest kids. And I think just all of those things on top of each other have really led to a huge shortage that was already coming prior to COVID, and it just exacerbated it and sped it up. And we got to figure out how to pay early childhood teachers what they’re worth for the work that they do and for their professionalism.
Chris Riback: A lot of challenges, a lot of opportunities too, with a lot of work being done by and with PRE4CLE. Michelle, thank you.