CINCINNATI – As Dele Okuwobi watched his daughter blossom in a quality preschool, he considered the thousands of children in Cincinnati who weren't getting the same chance.
"My heart just grieves that some parents don't have access to that level of education," he said. "A 3-year-old should not have to suffer for that."
So Okuwobi, a native of Nigeria and a minister at Peoples Church, decided to do something about it.
He and business partner Julia Brady plan to open a new preschool in or near Cincinnati's Mount Auburn neighborhood.
And they're bringing an idea to the endeavor that's new to Cincinnati. Bellwether Preschool will let parents become part owners for as little as $20, with the hope of making them active partners and giving low-income families a chance to be entrepreneurs.
Their venture is a concrete example of what may be coming to Cincinnati if the $48 million school levy passes in November.
The five-year levy would dedicate $15 million a year to funding two years of preschool that can be used to help pay for preschool at any private or public preschool within the Cincinnati Public Schools district that earns three or more stars on Ohio's quality rating scale.
A truly diverse student body
The school, to be called Bellwether Academy, doesn't aspire to serve low-income families, and it doesn't aspire to serve those who can afford a top-rated education. It wants to be both.
Bellwether will be structured to draw a mix of incomes and races into the program, with the hope that social and economic immigration helps families from all those groups. They want to serve 75 students at their first location and eventually expand to three, all which would serve neighborhoods that lacked high-quality preschools.
It's a big part of their goal of using the school as a vehicle for racial reconciliation and social justice.
"Our vision has been to create a school that gives parents a choice that strategically brings kids together in an economically and racially diverse community," Brady said.
Brady and Okuwobi said their business plan will work with or without levy funding. But public support will translate into more low-income children being enrolled.
"If it passes, we will be able to reach more children. The biggest thing is making sure we have staffing in place for it," Brady said.
Good schools cost money
Like all preschools that meet state standards for high quality, Bellwether's tuition will be expensive – $9,000 for full-day school.
The founders will run the school itself as a for-profit business, but they'll also establish a non-profit foundation that will offer scholarships to families on a sliding scale depending on need.
That will translate to no tuition for the most needy families and discounts to make it affordable for others.
Drawing well-off families
Brady said the quality of the school will draw families who can afford the sticker price, too.
"You walk into this school and right away it's a wow factor. You see technology, new books, a great learning environment," she said.
And it will be convenient for the thousands of workers at University of Cincinnati and the Uptown hospitals – Christ, Good Samaritan, University and Children's.
"Convenience is a big factor," Brady said.
The founders are in discussions with Peoples Church to locate the school in a church-owned building on William Howard Taft Road.
Okuwobi said many families with high incomes are already working in racially diverse businesses and want their children interacting with a diverse group at school.
He said his daughter was one of two minority children at her preschool because he and his wife had to choose between high quality and diversity. He wants parents to be able to have both.
"That is huge," he said. "There's a difference between diversity and racial reconciliation. I have many friends who want to send their kids to a diverse school."
The pair aspires to serve far more than toddlers, with plans to help guide whole families out of poverty.
In addition to encouraging them to become part owners, parents will be guided toward an array of social services and career counseling.
"We want to be of and for the community," Brady said.