CINCINNATI -- Avondale mom Lawn-Nette Brunner was dealing with a hectic move and a recently stolen car last month when she began shopping around for preschools for her daughter.
If it weren’t for the Florence Malone, Brunner’s four-year-old daughter might not have started preschool just two weeks ago.
“I want to do anything to help my child be successful," Brunner said, "but with (Malone) guiding me, it got me through.”
Malone is an enrollment specialist who works with parents across the city to sign kids up for the taxpayer-funded Preschool Promise program.
She drives parents to pick up immunization records from doctors, takes them on tours of area preschools and calls their cellphones to check on how their kids are adjusting to their new classrooms.
On this January day, Malone has a donated backpack and housecleaning supplies in hand as she greets Brunner and her daughter at a Clifton preschool.
It took about a month – and Malone’s gentle reminders, made through phone calls or sent in text messages – for Brunner’s daughter, Ce-Khila, to get enrolled at Little Lamb Child Care.
“When I see moms that really, really want it,” Malone said, “it motivates me to do more.”
And now Ce-Khila is one of the nearly 1,100 kids who attend preschool thanks to help from the citywide Preschool Promise program, which began enrolling students six months ago.
In 2016, Cincinnati voters passed a new $48 million school property tax levy that included funding to launch Preschool Promise. About $15 million yearly goes to the program, which provides preschool tuition help for families.
First year enrollment numbers have fallen short of the 2,000 kids that Preschool Promise leaders had hoped to sign up in the first year.
But they have made gains in recent months, with the number of 3- and 4-year-old kids going to preschool through the program nearly doubling since it first launched in August.
Six months ago, at the start of the school year, only 36 kids were enrolled in private preschool through the program. Roughly 550 kids were signed up through Preschool Promise at a Cincinnati Public Schools preschool.
Today, the same program sends nearly 500 kids to private preschools, and another 600 to CPS preschools.
On average, Preschool Promise awards $4,800 in vouchers per school year to families sending their kids to a private preschool in the city.
Preschool Promise tuition covers any costs to families, who make 200 percent of the poverty level or less, that isn't covered by state or federal aid. It's estimated 4,500 children live at or below 200 percent of the poverty level in the city.
Students must attend a state quality rated preschool that has a three-star rating or higher in order to be eligible for Preschool Promise help.
Because of that, Preschool Promise set aside $2.5 million from the levy this year to help area day cares improve their rating in the state’s preschool quality system. So far, 15 day cares across the city are participating in training to improve their rating.
Still, one of the biggest hurdles remains: letting parents know the program exists – and can offset the cost of preschool attendance.
Brunner said she happened to be touring Little Lamb Child Care when she found out about Preschool Promise.
It was the first time she had heard of the program.
“I was like, ‘Wow,’” Brunner said. “I just broke my pockets to move. I’m thankful.”
Now, Malone hopes to recruit Brunner for something else – to help spread the word about Preschool Promise.
Later this year, Preschool Promise hopes to launch a parent advisory board. Malone wants Brunner to join, and nudged her to tell her friends about the program.
“My theory is that everyone wants to do what’s the best thing for their child,” Malone said. “But they may not know how to do what’s best for their child.”