Future Ready Columbus Focuses on School Readiness

Peter Tonguette

When Jane Leach was interviewing for the executive director position at Future Ready Columbus, the longtime educator was asked about her goals for Central Ohio pre-kindergartners. Leach didn’t flinch.

“I said, ‘Well, 100 percent of the children in our community will be ready for kindergarten success,’” Leach recalls. “They’re like, ‘Well, OK, but you’re not going to reach that, so what’s your real target?’ I said, ‘The real target is 100 percent of the children.’

“If you line 10 children up in front of me and ask me which ones I’m going to advocate for, I’m going to advocate for 10,” she says. “That’s 100 percent.”

Such resolute determination has won Leach admirers since she signed on in 2018 to run Future Ready Columbus, a nonprofit public-private partnership that works with various community stakeholders, from schools to libraries, to boost kindergarten readiness for Franklin County children ages 5 and younger—just 40 percent of whom are considered kindergarten-ready, according to Leach.

“We know that 90 percent of a child’s brain develops in the first five years of their life, and we know that what happens in those first five years influences a child’s life trajectory,” says Leach. “We know that there’s a cost to children, to their families and to our community, if a child enters kindergarten not ready.”

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Brenda Rivers, president and CEO of the Child Development Council of Franklin County Inc., is among 34 members of Future Ready Columbus’ Early Childhood Advisory Council. She praises Leach’s seemingly single-minded devotion. “You have to have a passion for this work … for the children and for their families,” Rivers says. “She also is great [at] bringing people together.”

Leach, who spent much of her career in and around elementary school classrooms, considers her role at Future Ready Columbus to be something of a culmination. In 2007, after working as a teacher and administrator in Columbus City Schools for 27 years, as well as a lecturer, consultant and Hilliard school administrator, she founded Hilltop Preschool Columbus.

“You take my passion for young children, my experience as a teacher, my experience as a school administrator, and my experience as a consultant and the founder of a preschool, and you put it all together,” says the Northwest Columbus resident, who has two children with her husband, Don, as well as two grandchildren.

She has her work cut out for her. Leach and her staff of six must form consensus among multiple stakeholders in their quest to educate the region’s youngest children on a $2.6 million annual operating budget (2019). To that end, Future Ready Columbus’ advisory council consists of representatives from a diverse array of partners, from Franklin County Public Health to the YMCA of Central Ohio. At the outset, Leach delivered a bold message to the group: “Forty percent of our children demonstrate kindergarten readiness, and you have a piece of changing that dynamic. Let’s work together to create a plan—a system.”

Advisory council member Stephen D. Dackin compliments Leach’s leadership of a fragmented early-education ecosystem. “What Jane is really trying to do is connect dots and leverage the collective assets of Franklin County on this one issue,” says Dackin, Columbus State Community College’s superintendent of school and community partnerships.

The plan, dubbed Future Ready by Five, incorporates input from many entities. “We know that children need to have access to health care and behavioral health care,” Leach says. “We know that engaged families and communities matter. … We know that the quality of the care provider or the teacher influences a child.”

The goal, Leach says, is to get everyone on the same page: “We have to have this collective impact approach because there are many, many partners involved in creating this system of change.”

A draft of the plan, which has been unanimously approved by the advisory council, is being “checked and improved,” Leach says, through input from parents, caregivers, child care providers and preschool teachers. “We’re going out in the community and saying, ‘What do you think would help children in our community experience greater success along this path of kindergarten readiness?’” she says. “Once we hear from those folks, we will incorporate all those voices into this next iteration of our Future Ready by Five.”

No timetable has been set for implementation, but Leach is adamant that, once in place, the plan will have a measurable impact on kindergarten readiness. She contrasts the outcome of a systemic approach, like that taken by Future Ready Columbus, with a more checklist-driven, programmatic approach. “When we look across the country at countless, countless initiatives that have taken a programmatic approach, they have not seen that growth in readiness that we expect, very much so, with our holistic systems approach,” Leach says. “It’s the dealmaker.”

In the meantime, the organization tries to advance the ball, bit by bit, to reach Leach’s 100 percent readiness target by 2030. During the coronavirus pandemic, the group partnered with Bright by Text, which sends child-rearing tips and resources to parents and other caregivers via cellphone. Leach herself signed up. “I’m a grandmother, and I signed up with our grandchildren’s birthdates so that I could be informed, too,” she says.

This story is from the Winter 2020 issue of Columbus Parent.

Jane Leach