There has never been an effective effort on the part of the American government to provide universal pre-k for its youngest citizens. This puts America behind or at odds (depending on how you look at it) with other democracies in the developed world. France enrolls 95 percent of their three-year-olds. Denmark enrolls 98 percent. Other countries, including Germany, the United Kingdom, and Spain, all educate high percentages of their young students in preschool programs using public funding. Some 60 percent of America’s preschool-age children are enrolled in classes, but the percentage receiving public support is notably small.
A handful of states, including Idaho, Montana, and New Hampshire, provide absolutely no funding and plenty of states rely solely on Head Start. A mere handful have gone a step further and implemented universal or near-universal programs like the ones in Vermont, Florida, and New York City. In Cleveland, education activists have been working to enroll every preschool kid in the city in a high-quality pre-school program since 2012. Called “The Cleveland Plan,” this effort has been driven by PRE4CLE, an advocacy group that has proven effective. In 2014, only 25 percent of Cleveland students were enrolled in high quality pre-school. That number now sits at 40 percent. That’s largely because of people like Britton Hill.
Britton, along with his outreach team, canvasses the streets of Cleveland to find parents of kids who are eligible to enroll in pre-school. He knocks on doors. He sets up booths. He calls parents on the phone. Here, Britton talks about what it’s like to be on the front-lines of helping Cleveland’s pre-school program become truly universal.
I was an educator for well over 15 years. I’m also a father. It’s almost impossible to separate the two. When you’re working with kids, you become a parent to all of those kids. Working in the classroom was great, but there was something missing. A lot of the kids came in unprepared. We have the “third grade reading guarantee” where the kids have to know how to read at a certain level in the third grade. A lot of the kids that I was working with were struggling with that. In the classroom, I was dealing with test scores that show what children don’t know, but don’t show why they don’t know that.
I was always wondering: “What could I do to help these kids be further along without struggling so hard?” I was not aware of PRE4CLE until I started doing some research. I wanted to change my career goals where I could be more effective. So I decided to lead the classroom by going a different route to help kids at an even younger age. Getting involved with PRE4CLE helped me see why my kids were struggling, and why it’s important that they get involved in high quality pre-school now, at 3 and 4.
In my work, we definitely beat the pavement a lot. We are out canvassing, just talking with parents. We attend a lot of community events as well. I think I’m a charming guy. My approach is that I can talk to anybody. Of course, there are some people that don’t want to talk. They think I want something from them. They don’t realize that I’m trying to get information to them.
But every time I get somebody to fill out a parent information card, I experience some feeling of success. That card asks them their name, their phone number, their email address, the name and age of their child. It may seem very small, but that is success to me. A lot of small successes eventually turn into big successes. Our enrollment numbers are growing now, a major increase. That’s the success right there.
Once I engage the parent, of course, we have to make them aware of the scholarships that are available. We work with the Central Ohio Diversity Consortium. I follow-up with parents. I call them to show them what schools are within a 5 mile radius of their home. A lot of them have difficulties with transportation and things like that. When they find that good school, we’re helping them with that process, as well. We provide them with the tools that they need to get enrolled. I’m really working hard to alleviate the excuses for them to not send their child to school. Once they find out what’s available, then they really get on board. But it’s just a matter of them knowing that.
I feel like I’m doing something. I’m more deeply involved now, not just in the classroom, but in the community. So when parents ask me, well, how is this going to help? I can tell them, based on what I’ve seen from my experience in the classroom. Because for a lot of Cleveland parents, their focus isn’t even on school. Their focus is on trying to survive. Trying to get help.
I help them in a different way, by finding a good school for their kids. They call it day care, but we call it pre-school. It’s important that they understand that there’s a difference and it’s not just pre-school, but high quality pre-school. A lot of parents think that school begins with kindergarten. That’s part of the battle that my colleagues are facing when we’re out in the community.
I tell parents that if their kid enrolls in pre-school, they’re going to be learning. Parents do tours, see what’s going on in the classroom. They’re actually shocked. They don’t even realize that their child is capable of learning at an early age, or that their brains are like sponges, more absorbent than anything.
We work with a lot of impoverished parents who just simply don’t have the means or access to high quality. Getting that information out there gives them a sense of hope. There is something good out there that’s available to them that’s going to make their lives better. When a parent sees their child succeeding and doing better in school, it makes their life easier.
My hope is that we just continue to get PRE4CLE out there to make the community aware. Not just the families and the parents, but the schools, so that we continue to help them to become high quality. I hope that every child has an opportunity to experience and get a good education. That’s my hope. So I’m just going to keep spreading the word.