Can the City’s investment in kindergarten readiness spur economic growth?
Alison Gardy for What Works Cities
September 18, 2020
**Even before COVID-19 exposed and exacerbated so many symptoms of the United States’ crisis of economic inequality, local governments were working on better ways forward. Through the What Works Cities (WWC) Economic Mobility initiative that launched in June 2019, nine cities chose to develop critical projects to increase the financial security and economic mobility of their most vulnerable residents — often in low-income communities of color.
The story below is a snapshot: a record of a persistent obstacle to economic mobility, of a city creatively engaged with the problem, of an emerging solution. Written before the pandemic began, it shows the commitment and leadership of city leaders, staff, and local community partners who recognized the need for change. Although COVID-19 is reshaping economic mobility challenges and solutions around the country, the stories of these pre-crisis actions and insights remain instructive and valuable.
As the hard tasks of response and recovery continue, WWC will be publishing stories about how cities have evolved their Economic Mobility projects and technical assistance to meet the moment.**
DAYTON, OH — Preschool forms a foundation that lasts. A growing body of research spanning decades suggests that high-quality pre-kindergarten programs have significant, lifelong effects on students’ outcomes and well-being, including higher rates of high school and college graduation, and higher employment rates as young adults. They even have fewer chronic health problems.
In Dayton, where about 80 percent of children under five years old live in poverty, Mayor Nan Whaley believes providing children with high-quality education is “our most urgent economic development strategy.” She is prioritizing four year olds’ enrollment and consistent attendance in high-quality preschools as the means to their successful transition to kindergarten — and eventually, greater prosperity as adults. Furthermore, “this strategy was not simply thrust upon Daytonians,” Mayor Whaley says. “They chose it themselves at the ballot box. Even though we may not see the direct economic payoff from Preschool Promise for years, Daytonians have shown that they believe in investing in our kids as a long-term strategy.”
Over the last several years, Mayor Whaley has formed strong partnerships with Dayton Public Schools and the nonprofit Preschool Promise, both of which serve families in the city and surrounding Montgomery County. The City and its partners have embarked on a campaign to expand city-wide preschool enrollment and increase student readiness for kindergarten. The core principle underlying this work is to incorporate evidence of what helps children succeed later in life into initiatives that encourage educational caregiver-child interactions and focus on populations of families who have historically low attendance patterns.
By doing so, Dayton hopes to build a clear case that government and local community partners can help dramatically improve families’ economic trajectories.
An Intervention Begins
Dayton is not unlike other cities across the country where pronounced differences in academic achievement fall along economic and racial lines. In 2017–2018, for example, Dayton preschoolers’ scores improved overall on a nationwide kindergarten readiness assessment, but the gap in achievement between white and African-American children increased.
A 2017 report from the National Institute for Early Education Research, however, shows that high-quality universal preschool and the consistent attendance that comes with universal programs would significantly narrow that gap. But in Dayton, during the 2018–2019 school year, while two-thirds of the city’s white preschoolers had an attendance rate of 90 percent or better, only 62 percent of African-American girls and just over half of African-American boys had similarly high attendance rates.
A 90 percent attendance rate is an important threshold: Research shows that attendance in high-quality preschool programs at this rate is critical for achieving kindergarten readiness. It jumpstarts the chain of positive outcomes that readiness unleashes along children’s education journey to adulthood — outcomes that include less likelihood of being held back and, in adolescent years, lower incidence of arrests and pregnancies.
In 2016, Dayton voters approved a 0.25 percent increase on an annual earned income tax to support critical city services and to offer one year of affordable, quality preschool education to all Dayton-area families with four-year-olds. Thanks to the resulting infusion of funds from the tax — $11 million per year, of which nearly 40 percent goes to Preschool Promise — preschool recruiting efforts expanded. Overall city and county preschool enrollment rose to 73 percent for the 2018–2019 school year, a seven percent increase over the previous year.
East Dayton, where enrollment rates have historically been lowest and Preschool Promise has focused recruitment efforts, saw pockets of improvement. But enrollment rates are still significantly below that of the city and county overall — and the tax is up for renewal in 2024. “All of the City’s future contributions to Preschool Promise hinge on the renewal of the levy in 2024,” said Torey Hollingsworth, senior policy aide to the mayor. “There have to be results to show voters.”
Expanding the Promise
In the spring of 2019, Dayton’s preschool efforts got a boost when the City was selected as one of nine cities to participate in the What Works Cities (WWC) Economic Mobility initiative. The program helps cities both identify and implement strategies to increase their residents’ economic mobility and share how cities and local communities can help reverse the national trend of declining economic mobility. Through this 18-month program, Dayton is working with Preschool Promise to increase parental engagement in early childhood education, reduce absenteeism so all students reach the 90 percent threshold, and build a pipeline into preschool to enroll more four year olds in both the city and county.
The City of Dayton and Preschool Promise began working with a team of advisors from partners in the WWC network to implement three key interventions to raise preschool attendance rates: build out a city network of playscapes to spark an interest in learning; help parents and teachers collaboratively build attendance plans; and pilot a text message-based communication approach for supporting parents. WWC is also providing technical assistance for the City to develop the measurement tools and capacity to gather data and evidence that show the impact of these interventions and the tax increase.
Now, the race is on to achieve a positive impact that voters will want to continue supporting: a city making undeniable strides toward a universal, high-quality preschool system that attracts young families to what Mayor Whaley champions as a “City of Learners.”
Building a Playful Pipeline
One of Dayton’s WWC-backed pilots aims to better engage families early by developing cheerful, interactive educational play spaces — known as On Purpose Play landscapes — across the city. They are expected to be an effective method of supporting young families and building a pipeline to preschool.
Built in cooperation with engineering students from the University of Dayton and a collaborative of other community partners, the On Purpose Play landscapes are intended to cultivate a culture of learning, be attractive to children, and encourage adults with visual cues to stimulate their children’s curiosity and awareness of their surroundings starting from birth. The first On Purpose Play landscapes are planned for places, such as the Montgomery County Job Center located in Dayton, where adults are likely to go with their children for social services.
The ultimate goal is to transform the many vacant lots that lace Dayton, whose population has halved over the last 60 years, into landscapes that create everyday learning experiences between caregivers and young children.
For Preschool Promise Executive Director Robyn Lightcap, the vacant lots are canvases for her imagination. She can see the future signs with messages that guide families through, say, the wonders of a garden and pique their interest in preschool. It is one part of a multi-pronged strategy that she, Mayor Whaley, the City, and their partners are counting on to make a real difference in the long-term economic prospects of Dayton’s families.
The City knows it is tackling a complex challenge with roots extending far beyond the education world. Many of the factors that contribute to the preschool attendance and achievement gap are a result of myriad policies and decisions that have, intentionally or not, created real barriers for working class and low-income families. Parents who are hourly wage workers, for example, may have inflexible work schedules incompatible with preschool drop-off.
Additionally, many childcare and preschool providers serving predominantly African-American communities have been historically underfunded and under-resourced. If unsatisfied with nearby options, Dayton parents can choose to send their child to any preschool throughout the city. But the further it is from home, the greater the challenge to get there. The family may have an unreliable car — or not have one at all. Public transportation options in the city are limited, and for some, unaffordable.
The City and Preschool Promise have moved forward on multiple fronts to address these challenges. For example, as part of its pilot to improve attendance, Preschool Promise provided a $50 bus pass to a parent so she could bring her preschooler, toddler, and first grader on the bus with her to get the preschooler and first grader to their respective schools on time. Their attendance improved — sometimes solutions are that simple.