Recent News

February 28, 2017

Expanding Access to Quality Preschool in Northern Kentucky

Amanda Unsell is a mother of four living in Dayton, Kentucky. While her oldest child did not attend preschool and her youngest is not quite of age, her two middle children have reaped the rewards of attending preschool in the Dayton School District. Although it was initially tough for her and her children to adapt, they have since reaped the rewards of attending preschool in a high-quality environment.

“The differences are major,” said Unsell. “My older son was the first to go through preschool, and he had a huge separation issue, but with a couple months, he really adapted to it and loved it. My second son who is in preschool now also had separation issues but he adapted really well and now he’s in his second year in preschool. Last year he had a really hard time, but this year he’s up before my alarm goes off. He’s asking if it’s time to go to school, he can tell me who all his friends are, and he can tell me what all he’s learned. It’s been great.”


Dayton is one of 10 Northern Kentucky school districts to have received a Preschool Partnership Grant from the Kentucky Department of Education in October of 2016. With input from the Preschool Partnership Grant Advisory Committee, the Kentucky Department of Education awarded $6.5 million in grants throughout the state, with over $1 million coming to the Northern Kentucky area.

“What we found out from the data that we’ve taken from our kids that are in full-day preschool, is that 67% were ready for kindergarten, whereas if our kids were home or didn’t have any early learning exposure, only 13% were ready,” said Brittney Howell, director of early child learning, Dayton Public Schools. “With this preschool expansion grant, we are continuing to work to provide the high-quality care to as many kids as we can, but we have also hired an Early Childhood Community Connector, someone who is on the ground and engaging with families in our community, and trying to get them connected to all of the services that we have to offer.

The grants are designed to incentivize collaborative partnerships with providers to ensure more 3 and 4-year olds have access to full-day, quality early learning experiences, and are separated into two tiers. Tier 1 is a planning grant with a cap of $25,000, with a purpose of developing a plan to implement a full-day, high-quality preschool partnership. Tier 2 is an implementation grant with a cap of $150,000, with a purpose of actually implementing or enhancing a full-day, high-quality preschool partnership.

Tier 1 Districts




Tier 2 Districts



Boone County

Campbell County


Kenton County



“Early childhood education is one of United Way’s top priorities, and these grants will help us tremendously in achieving our goal of providing every 3 and 4-year old in Kentucky with access to high-quality early learning experiences in a community based setting where early learning providers collaborate to support our children and their families,” said Amanda Greenwell, director, United Way Success By 6® in Northern Kentucky. “This is Kentucky’s answer to the Preschool Promise efforts going on in Cincinnati.”

Collaboration is key, and it was spearheaded with the launch of “Pre-K Works” in 2015 in the Erlanger-Elsmere school district. Pre-K Works is a collaborative of community stakeholders led in partnership by Skyward and United Way Success by 6® who are united by a vision for high-quality learning experience for all 3 and 4-year olds in Kentucky. The districts that received these grants are looking to Erlanger-Elsmere as a model and are working collaboratively to provide expanded access to high-quality learning environments within their respective districts.

While Dayton and Bellevue are separate, but adjacent communities, the collaboration between their school districts has been incredibly beneficial especially considering they sometimes share kids.

“We work really closely with Bellevue and just by geographical nature, we share kids a lot,” said Howell. “United Way has provided a lot of great opportunities for collaboration between the River City districts, and it’s been great for us to be able to talk to other districts to stay on the same page and be able to lean on each other for support.”


“What’s really cool is Brittney (in Dayton) and I started in these positions at the same time,” said Tara Wittrock, director of special populations, Bellevue Independent Schools. “It’s been an extreme blessing to have somebody right next door to me, and we call each other on a regular basis to bounce ideas off each other. She and I have a lot of the same philosophies about kids, and about the strength and position of the school districts, and the effect we can have to literally change the trajectory of some of the lives of some of these families.”

Through these grants, the primary focus for both Dayton and Bellevue is to engage with families and to recruit children through the Early Childhood Community Connector position each district was able to hire. That position began in Erlanger-Elsmere and their ECCC has worked with the new ones in Dayton and Bellevue to impart wisdom and share ideas and best practices on how to find families.

Not all of the districts are doing the same thing with their grant funds, however. The Campbell County district has expanded their Head Start preschool program to offer extended hours until 6 P.M., and adding two Fridays per month as a day of service.


“We are very excited that we have between 20-25 students staying for the extension of their school day from Monday-Thursday each week,” said Marinell Kephart, director of preschool, Campbell County Schools. “In addition to instruction, this affords us the opportunity to provide an extra meal to our kids. Our Head Start program is also in session two Fridays per month. Our Campbell County team is providing parent training sessions weekly. Our hope is not to only extend the day for the students, but to promote parent involvement and offer information.”

At the end of the day, with all the hard work being done by each of the districts, the goal is to change the trajectory of families like the Unsells.

“I know in the long run preschool has really, really helped my son a lot, and he’s going to be ready when he goes to kindergarten,” said Unsell. “He is pointing out letters and numbers when his older brother and sister are doing their homework. He and his sister are really close, and she thinks it’s the neatest thing that he can point them out to her. Overall, I think Dayton has done an amazing job with their preschool and it’s really made a difference for my kids."