One Great Idea Tour: Cleveland

The “One Great Idea Tour” kicks off in Cleveland, Ohio with a discussion on innovative pre-school initiatives.

Katie Kelly is the executive director of PRE4CLE, an organization seeking to ensure that all 3- and 4-year-old children in Cleveland have access to a high-quality pre-school.

Rebekah Dorman has a Ph.D. in developmental psychology from Cornell and serves as Director of Invest In Children, a community-wide, public/private partnership comprised of county government and private organizations.

JoAnna Adams has an M.A. in early childhood education and has worked in pre-school education for over 30 years. Adams currently runs a home-based pre-school in one of Cleveland’s most economically stressed neighborhoods.


Tavis Smiley: Good evening from Cleveland. I’m Tavis Smiley at the Westfield Insurance Studio Theaters at WVIZ/PBS.
Tonight we begin our week-long five-city tour here in Cleveland. It’s all part of what we’re calling the “One Great Idea Tour”. We are taking our show on the road to highlight individual cities that are finding solutions to some of the nation’s most difficult and intractable challenges pointing the way for other cities to follow.
And so here in Cleveland, we focus tonight on early education and how a citywide commitment to its youngest citizens is remaking their future.
We’re glad you’ve joined us. A conversation about Cleveland’s “One Great Idea” coming up right now.
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Tavis: The research is clear. 80% of a child’s brain is fully formed in the first 2,000 days of life. So getting them on the right track is crucial for their future. Here in Cleveland, that means guaranteeing a place at a top-rated preschool for every three and four-year-old in the city.
Before we start our conversation, first a look at a how an excellent preschool is working for one Cleveland family.
Valerie Ford: Once we got here, my daughter loved it. She didn’t want to leave, so it was just a good feeling. Ever since then, about a year and a half later, she’s doing really good in writing, talking more, expressing her feelings. I could just tell what the school teaches her sticks on her. It’s been positive. My second daughter is here, my son will come here next year.
Tavis: Dakota and her sister, Devonare, in preschool at the YWCA Early Learning Center. It has a three-star rating out of a possible five, part of the state’s Step Up to Quality rating program.
Ford: They send paper home telling them of what they did and how they were that day. So I talk to the girls and ask them what they did, how they did it and what they want to do. And we try to, like I said, do it with them at home as much as possible. They said she’s going to do good in kindergarten and I could feel it. I feel that. I trust that.
Tavis: Joining me now are Katie Kelly, director of PRE4CLE, the city’s preschool initiative, JoAnna Adams who runs a three-star home-based childcare center, and Rebekah Dorman, director of Invest in Children, the county’s program to support preschool education. Good to have you all on this program tonight.
Katie Kelly: Great to be here.
Tavis: Katie, let me start with you. It seems to me that, if 80% of a child’s brain is formed in the first 2,000 days, fully formed, then why aren’t we talking about preschool that is free for children all across America? Why are we fighting so hard in cities to make this a reality?
Kelly: Well, I think, you know, brain research has come a long way in the past 20 years, so that’s part of it is that before we all knew and people who care for young children know how important it is to care for them and to provide them the kind of loving environment that they need, I think now we know–the research tells us–about the brain development that’s such a critical piece and is such a unique window.
So I think we are moving now as a community and as a country really to put our investment there where we know it works. But it’s going to take time, I think, for our policy to catch up to the research.
Tavis: I wonder whether or not you think that pre-K ought to be a basic fundamental right for all of America’s children and not based upon whether or not one can afford it or what city you happen to live in.
Kelly: I think that it’s the smart thing to do for communities to look at the research, to look at the science, and say it doesn’t make any sense for us not to do this. So, yes, I think our community is firmly behind every three and four-year-old should have access to high-quality preschool and that’s what PRE4CLE is all about.
So, you know, that’s our commitment, but also it makes sense. It makes sense for the community to make that investment because we know children are so much more likely to succeed in school, to go on to graduate from high school, to be successful adults. So everyone wins in that equation.
Tavis: I’ll come back to Cleveland specifically in just a second, though. Rebekah, let me before I drill down a little deeper ask how concerned you are, to Katie’s point, that we have so many elected officials at certainly the federal level and even some at the state and local level who don’t care much about the science.
I mean, it seems to me that you can’t get the good public policy if you have persons in office who don’t even follow the science on any number of issues. I’ll leave that for another night. But how concerned are you about people who don’t care about the science?
Rebekah Dorman: Well, first I have to say that that is definitely not the case in our community. We’ve had amazing leadership at the city and at the county and amazing collaboration because they do get it. I have to say, just to tell how it evolved for the county here, our new county executive who came into office last year asked around, “What’s going to be the most transformational action county government can take?”
He heard over and over again, “Invest more in high-quality preschool education” and he looked at the research. He took the time and when you have a thoughtful public official like that, which we are lucky to have, he made the decision that the top priority of county government is to expand our high-quality universal pre-K program, of which JoAnna is one site. So I do think that we have role models out there.
We have to try to make sure we use examples like our community, what you’re trying to do today, to show that get the right research there, thoughtful public officials, and the right decisions do get made.
Tavis: How is the program at this point, Katie? I’m bouncing around here, so just stay with me. How is the program being received or, put another way, reviewed by the public thus far?
Kelly: I mean, it’s been tremendously supported. We started in 2014, but it was really an outgrowth of the Cleveland Plan, which is the plan to transform the Cleveland public schools. So our leadership, as Rebekah said, really realizes what a critical part of education this is, so it was actually written right into the plan that every three and four-year-old should have access to high-quality preschool.
You know, the community’s firmly behind that plan and I think what sets us apart on early learning especially is the collaboration that this community has around this issue a lot of times, because early learning is so different from K-12 and that most of the kids are actually served in the community in Head Start, in childcare, in childcare homes.
So a lot of times, the leaders of those systems don’t communicate and that’s really a loss. That’s really a huge lost opportunity. But Cleveland and Cuyahoga County realized long ago that, if we leverage our strengths, we’re so much farther ahead.
So this community has fully gotten behind it and we’re at the table together. We’re figuring out what this community needs, what our children need, and that includes the county leadership, that includes the Cleveland public schools.
It includes foundations, the private sector, so it really is a very collaborative movement that’s been hugely supportive. Last year, we started with only a quarter of our kids in high-quality preschool in 2013. Last year, we had 1,200 more kids enrolled in one year, so we’re way ahead of where we even wanted to be.
Tavis: Tell me more specifically about how the program works.
Kelly: So we work in a lot of different ways to get children into those classrooms. So one way is to…
Tavis: These are in schools.
Kelly: In schools, in childcare and Head Start, in childcare homes. All have to be high-quality, though, and that’s really our focus. We know that, in order to get the lasting positive outcomes for kids, you have to have high-quality standards. You have to have teachers who are educated in early learning. You have to have high-quality curricula. You have to have ongoing professional development.
You know, we heard a little bit about our state’s Step Up To Quality system. We’re able to use that as a framework, but we focus on that quality element. So helping providers reach that higher level of quality, helping high-quality providers create new opportunities to expand, the number of kids they’re serving, and then to remove barriers for families.
We know that cost is a barrier. We know that transportation can be a barrier. And, quite frankly, knowledge can be a barrier. It’s a very complicated landscape sometimes in this field. So just making sure that parents are empowered and have the information they need to make the right choices for their children.
Tavis: How do you get around those challenges, Rebekah, of cost and transportation?
Dorman: Well, one of the things we’re trying to do collaboratively is make sure high-quality is located in all neighborhoods in the city and the county by creating new sites where research has shown us that we don’t have enough quality for the preschool population in that neighborhood. So we’ve been very intentional about that.
Tavis: Let me guess. Those would be Black and Brown neighborhoods?
Dorman: They are, although I will say that actually there is a concentration of high-quality in the city of Cleveland too. So not enough, but more than you might suspect, and that’s partly because I think we all know that providers have recognized that children who are coming from disadvantaged backgrounds must have the high-quality, need the high quality, to level the playing field.
And I’m happy to say that the collaboration that exists in our community is with providers in the community who understand the challenges, step up to the plate, get rated and step up to quality, and make this whole thing happen.
Because it’s really, you know, in homes like JoAnna’s and other high-quality providers that the difference is really being made. So we’re trying to use research, but we know we need the provider community to step up with us and make it happen.
Tavis: Enter into the conversation, JoAnna. JoAnna, tell me what you do on a daily basis?
JoAnna Adams: Well, basically, I have a lesson plan and I plan all the activities. I observe the children to find out where their interests lie and then I base my lesson plans on their interests. I try to make learning fun so that not only do they play, they also learn, and we have fun [laugh].
Tavis: And you do this where?
Adams: In my home.
Tavis: In your home.
Adams: Yes.
Tavis: Tell me about how your home advantages you or disadvantages you, and I assume you think it advantages you because it’s your home [laugh]. Tell me how that advantages you in your outreach, your work with these children.
Adams: Well, it is an advantage. I don’t have to go out and buy clothes all the time [laugh] or when it’s three below zero, I’m at home looking out at the snow. But it’s an advantage because I can work with a small group at one time. I can see the fruits of my labor.
Tavis: What’s a small group? In terms of what number are we talking about?
Adams: Well, I’m licensed for six children. I do have the UPK program in my home and I have three children in my UPK and I also work with mixed ages so that my UPK is also learning from my school agers when my school agers come in before and after school.
Tavis: This sounds more like family care than just pre-K.
Adams: It is, it is. And not only am I working with the children, I’m also working with my parents. We have a dynamic parent group. At first, it didn’t start off with–my parents just thought that it was a place for them to drop off their children. Now they’re becoming interested in what their children learn.
I also use surveys to find out what it is they want their children to learn and also explain to them that, okay, your two-year-old is not ready to learn his ABCs. He’s now learning language. Also, I tell them that they ought to be educated.
We just had a meeting with Cleveland Now, College Now, to come in and talk to our parents about going back to school and, those who had already started school, that there are programs out there for them to pay off their loans and go back to school.
Tavis: Tell me a bit more about–I’m fascinated by it because you hit on something now that comes up every time you have one of these conversations. But since you’re a practitioner, I suspect your answer might be a bit different.
Tell me more about the value of that parental involvement. I’m fascinated by your story about how the parents initially thought it was just a place to drop their kids off and, over time, you’ve gotten the parents involved. How has that aided and abetted your work that you now have parental involvement?
Adams: My parents are the first teachers, so it is very important that we collaborate together. They should have some input in what their children are learning and they should become involved. Not only they should start off at the beginning so that when their children do enter, let’s say, schools that they will come to the meetings and they will work with the children learning.
Also, when the teacher sends home homework, the homework should be done with the parent in mind. The teacher has 30 or 40 children in her class, so your child might be the one that misses out. And if she sends homework home, it should be a “we” thing, not, okay, do your homework. You should be able to look over it too.
Tavis: Katie, tell me more about how you get the buy-in of the city writ large on something like this. Because it seems to me, back to what Rebekah and I were talking about earlier, there are some pockets of the city where this program is more needed than in other parts of the city.
I guess Beachwood might not need a program as much as other parts of the city might need it. But how do you get the buy-in of the entire city, particularly when whether we like it or not, race is a part of the equation here?
Kelly: Right. Well, I think a couple of things work to our advantage. One is, I think, once you start talking about this issue, no matter where you live or what your income is, you get it. You get why this matters. So I think we’ve done a really good job of engaging the whole community to say, “How do we solve this problem?”
The other piece is, you need to get people together at the table and that includes leadership, but it also includes educators and parents, to say, “What is it that our community needs and what are we going to do to solve it?”
I think that’s what we’ve done really well and other communities looking to do what we’ve done. I think it is that constant communication. It’s that inclusion, and then it’s just continually talking to the community about how we can work together on this issue.
You know, this issue crosses income. It crosses political lives. It crosses all of those things that can divide us because, when you really think about it and when you have experience with young children and even when you don’t, when you just look at the research and look at the impact on the community, you can see why it matters.
So I think for communities, start with the table of leaders, of educators, of parents, of families, and start talking about what it is, what are your challenges, and what are you going to do to solve it, and don’t give up.
I mean, we have PRE4CLE. It’s very exciting, but this community has been working on this issue for 20 years. So this is a movement that’s been building over time and, I think, right now we’re at a tipping point with what the schools are doing, what the county is doing, what the city is doing, and we’re putting it all together and we’re ready to go.
Tavis: Cleveland’s not the only city by far, Rebekah, that has had problems with its public education system. I’m looking down the road now here and trying to figure out and to assess early on what you all think or hope the impact of PRE4CLE will be on public education writ large some years down the road.
Dorman: Well, I think what our hope is, if children walk into the door of kindergarten having had a high-quality preschool experience, that teacher is able to have a whole different year with those kids than if the children walk in not having had that experience.
So from the beginning, I think we’re asking an awful lot of kindergarten teachers if they’re trying to make up for experiences or lack of experiences that some of the children have had.
So I think we know that teachers can actually spot which children have come in ready to learn and which ones they’re going to have to teach what it means to stand in line or ask a question. So I think we also know that high-quality preschool means less kids go into special education, which takes a lot of resources.
So if we have classrooms, for example, the kindergarten teacher in Beachwood meets a group of children who are ready to learn, are curious, feel secure, etc., we want the same thing for every child in the city of Cleveland from the most disadvantaged neighborhoods, that those kindergarten teachers meet the same kinds of children when they walk in the door.
And I think we all feel that’s what we’re doing. So the education system can really concentrate on helping those kids fly instead of trying to remediate.
Tavis: I won’t surprise you when I tell you that, for the last year or so, the image that the nation has had of Cleveland and the regard or lack thereof for its children is the Tamir Rice case. When we look at Cleveland and see what happened to Tamir Rice, we wonder how–and Cleveland, again, is not the only city where this has happened, but it was such a horrible example of the way we devalue our children.
Let me ask you first, JoAnna. How do you think this program can change the narrative in the nation about the way Cleveland regards its children?
Adams: I think that when the nations see that we are working with our children, let’s say, the first 2,000 days that they’re getting an early head start, I think it’s going to make a difference because you can almost see when the children go to school, they have more words. They are doing more things. I think it’ll have a great impact on where other cities are when they see that we are working with the children earlier.
Tavis: It is about changing the narrative, Katie.
Kelly: It is, and I think that what we can show is that we are a community in this regard who is deeply invested in the lives of its children, all children, and that we’re not going to stop until every child has access to preschool.
And it all about changing their life course, giving them the skills not just academic readiness, but social, emotional skills and all of the skills they need to be successful as students and as adults. And this is, you know, an unprecedented level of investment and collaboration that I think our community is showing to the nation, and we’re excited to be sharing it today.
But I think, you know, communities can look at what Cleveland is doing and, yes, we have challenges, of course. And, yes, we have a long way to go, but we are fully committed to finding what it is that our children need and making it happen.
Tavis: Tell me more, Rebekah, about the expectations. I’ve always believed that kids perform or under-perform to the level of our expectation of them. So it’s one thing to get the buy-in of the parents, another thing to get the buy-in of the kids. It’s another thing still to get the buy-in of the teachers, to get the buy-in of the education community. Tell me how they’re viewing and regarding this program.
Dorman: Well, I mean, you can’t talk about high-quality preschool without talking about teachers because teachers are at the core of quality. What we’re doing is encouraging a lot of professional development for preschool educators.
They clearly are not getting the same pay or status and respect as they deserve now that we know how key this period is and the work that they’re doing with kids. And I think that’s, you know, a huge issue for us. It’s how do we also level the playing field for preschool teachers, many of whom achieved their Bachelors? In JoAnna’s case, she just got her Masters degree.
We want those teachers in those community-based settings to get the same respect and the same salaries as the teachers get in public preschool. So I think that’s where our biggest concern lies right now with the teaching force. May I say one word on the Tamir Rice situation?
Tavis: You sure may, yes.
Dorman: When you look at what’s happened in county government and the budget that just was put forward, because a budget really tells you where does the community have its priorities, so in a very tight budget cycle, an additional $10 million was put into expanding our universal pre-kindergarten program in the county.
I think it sends a powerful message, to Katie’s point, about here’s our priorities and, look, there are dollars behind it. So we hope that’s the message we’re sending out to the country about what’s going on in Cuyahoga County and Cleveland.
Tavis: Got a minute to go here. Katie, tell me what the measurement–I hear the efforts already to scale the program up. What’s your success measurement?
Kelly: It’s really simple. It’s that every child enters kindergarten fully ready to learn. And we know when we started this in 2013, only about less than half of our kids were at that benchmark. We also know from our data that we collect here that kids coming out of our high-quality preschool classrooms, 80% of them were on track for kindergarten readiness.
So we need to get every child the right early learning experiences so that they can all enter that kindergarten door. I think Rebekah put it beautifully, “ready to fly”, really ready to fulfill their potential and ready to go from school to graduation to career and live really fulfilled lives.
Tavis: Well, I’m celebrating what Cleveland is doing. That’s why we started this week, all week long, on the road to try to get “One Great Idea” from some of America’s great cities. I don’t get a chance to do this in L.A. because I never have a live audience. So please thank Rebekah and JoAnna and Katie for being here [laugh].
Tavis: As I said, all week long we’re traveling the country to find out what cities are doing well and we can offer as ideas that other cities might want to scale up. We thank our good friends here at WVIZ/PBS who made this program possible tonight in Cleveland.
Tomorrow night, we are live from Milwaukee with another great idea. Until then, thanks for watching from Cleveland and, as always, keep the faith.
Announcer: For more information on today’s show, visit Tavis Smiley at
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Tavis: “One Great Idea Tour” is made possible by Enterprise. Pick Enterprise, we’ll pick you up.
And by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation working with diverse partners to build a national culture of health so that everyone in America can live productive and healthy lives.
Announcer: And by contributions to your PBS station from viewers like you. Thank you.

Last modified: April 25, 2016 at 12:52 pm