Voters in the Cincinnati Public School District will be asked in November to support a new operating tax levy. A significant portion of the funds (approximately $15 million per year) will be designated for a new initiative to make quality early childhood learning affordable for every 3- and 4-year-old in the district.

Although this is new to our region, it is best understood as the latest expression of a process that has been developing since the late 1830s. Although the underlying educational insight had its origins in Germany, we have reached this point only because of the contributions of many local leaders.

Prior to the 1830s, any sort of organized education for children younger than 6 simply involved exposing them to the classical curriculum and learning methods (i.e. rote memory). The intellectual breakthrough came in Germany in the late 1830s through the work of Friedrich Froebel. He provided the insight that children learn best through experience and that the fundamental experience of a child is grounded in play. Froebel called his experiment a “kindergarten” (a place where children are nurtured), emphasizing social activity, free self-expression and creativity, in contrast to the approach of formal schooling.

To enhance the play in his kindergarten, Froebel created learning aids, including “gifts” (such as sets of blocks or a ball on a string) and “occupations” (activities for children to utilize the gifts).

German-speaking immigrants carried the kindergarten to the United States by 1856. The first English language kindergarten opened in 1860 and the first publicly supported kindergarten opened in St. Louis in 1873.

Annie Laws, the daughter of a wealthy merchant, helped found the Cincinnati Kindergarten Association in 1879 when she was just 24 years old. Her goal was to counteract “the demoralizing influence which the streets of a large city present to the young.” The Association began training teachers in Frobel’s theory and methods and advocating for public financial support of kindergartens. The latter goal was achieved 26 years later in 1905, the same year that the University of Cincinnati created a College for Teachers, which included a kindergarten department.

A few years later, the local kindergarten movement found an important new
advocate in Jennie Davis Porter, who spread kindergartens to the booming African American population. Porter opened a private kindergarten in the West End in 1911, which was rapidly filling up with thousands of black families fleeing the South in search of a better life. Three years later, she became the first principal of the all-black Stowe School. Over the next 22 years she used Stowe as the cornerstone for a subsystem of racially segregated schools that welcomed thousands of black children and created hundreds of professional jobs for black teachers who became the foundation for the black middle class in this city.

A decade later Ada Hart Arlitt arrived at the University of Cincinnati and began teaching a course on preschool children in 1924. Arlitt organized the first laboratory preschool for children 2 to 4 years old. Located on the fourth floor of Beecher Hall, with the playground on the roof, student teachers spent a lot of time running up and down the stairs to retrieve stray balls.

Arlitt insisted on rigorous observation of how young children play to develop better materials, curriculum and methods. That work continues today at the Arlitt Child and Family Research and Education Center on the UC campus.

Although kindergarten became institutionalized as part of the public school system, learning opportunities for younger children have largely been the hands of women working in their homes and running centers. Childcare had always been a concern for lower class women working in factories, but the movement of college-educated middle class women into the workforce as full-time workers transformed the demand.

For 44 years beginning in 1961, Sallie Westheimer led 4C for Children to help adults who work in childcare centers, preschools and family childcare homes transform themselves from babysitters into early childhood professionals.

Westheimer’s influence has not only reached down to those who worked in the field, but up into the business leadership of the community. In March 2013 James Zimmerman, the former CEO of Macy’s, and John Pepper, the former CEO of P&G, teamed up to write an influential op-ed for the New York Times entitled “Capitalists for Preschool” that made the business case for quality early education. Zimmerman is very clear that Sallie Wesheimer served as his early guide into the field.

Parallel to the work of 4C was the creation of Head Start by the Lyndon Johnson Administration (under the guidance of Theodore Berry, a protégé of Jennie Porter, who joined the War on Poverty). This was also the time that Montessori education became popular in the United States. Xavier University created the first graduate-level Montessori education program in the nation, creating the foundation for making Cincinnati a national center for this movement.

Whether the proposal on the ballot will gain a majority this November or not, this issue is front and center only because of the tireless work of women like Laws, Porter, Arlitt and Westheimer, as well as the thousands of early childhood professionals who work every day helping 3-year-olds discover what is possible when they stack Froebel’s blocks.