While achievement gaps between Black and white children are not unique to Ohio, a 2017 report found that the divide among the starkest in the country. When students were relegated to virtual classrooms during the pandemic, learning loss disproportionately affected students of color. At the same time, Black educators in Cincinnati and throughout the state of Ohio were dwindling. Research shows that Black students benefit from having Black teachers, so this educator shortage was creating an additional hurdle for Black preschoolers who were falling behind in kindergarten readiness.
The State of Ohio and a coalition of philanthropic organizations funded an innovative approach to diversify the educator pool and serve its most vulnerable students by partnering with the The Literacy Lab’s Leading Men Fellowship, a program that places young men of color, Black and Brown, in high-need preschools to deliver targeted early literacy interventions. Fellows supplement classroom instruction by delivering an evidence-based literacy curriculum, while receiving ongoing personal and professional support to nurture a future career in education.
Keys to the program’s success include using a data-backed literacy framework (SEEDS of Learning), employing a dedicated coaching team to ensure Fellow success and help students reach their benchmarks, providing personal and professional wrap-around support internally and in affiliation with their community partners, and significant public and private funding.
Obstacles to the program’s success include helping Fellows overcome challenges in their personal lives, which sometimes diminished their ability to fully participate in the program; overcoming biases directed at young Black men; and helping young men navigate the transition from student to teacher soon after having graduated from high school.
Results and accomplishments
In a survey from Q1 of 2023, 73% of Cincinnati’s Leading Men Fellows expressed interest in careers in education after their Fellowship year.
In the 2022-2023 school year, the inaugural cohort of Cincinnati Leading Men Fellows has helped approximately 350 students develop fundamental early literacy skills and make progress towards kindergarten readiness.
In a survey from Q1 of 2023, 98% of Leading Men Fellows nationwide said their service has had a positive impact on them.
Personal and professional development of young Black and Brown men: The Leading Men Fellowship trains young men of color to become early childhood education professionals. Participants receive competitive wages, ongoing professional development and coaching, valuable career training, and access to college credit and tuition assistance to its participants. To date, 79 Leading Men Fellows nationally have taken steps to pursue a career in education following their Fellowship year.
Pathway to future growth: The success of the inaugural Fellowship cohort in Cincinnati has enabled an expansion of the program within the city and throughout Ohio. The first year of the program saw 20 Fellows placed in six preschools, and the organization is poised to host 30 Fellows in the 2023-24 school year. At least 40 Fellows are planned for the 2024-25 school year.
Sustained collaboration between public and private partners: Students’ stark learning loss and disrupted learning during the COVID-19 pandemic energized state leaders, nonprofits, and higher education institutions to work together to help students recover. The Leading Men Fellowship has been able to leverage the resources and support from its community partners – the CityLink Center, Cincinnati State, and Mount St. Joseph University – to broaden its impact and create optimal conditions for sustainable long-term growth.
What was the challenge?
A widening school-readiness gap for Cincinnati students: In 2019, Cincinnati Public Schools, the second largest school district in Ohio, received a “D” grade from the Ohio Department of Education based on its performance across several student success indicators. While the district had improved performance on some indicators, academic outcomes suffered when the pandemic hit. Cincinnati’s most vulnerable students experienced the greatest disruptions to learning, widening existing kindergarten readiness gaps between Black preschool students and their peers.
Lack of racial representation among early childhood educators: Like many public school districts in the United States, Cincinnati’s public school workforce is not representative of the student population it serves. Cincinnati Public Schools’ data shows that while more than 60 percent of its students are Black, only 4 percent of its teachers are Black men.
Rapidly worsening teacher shortage: In addition to the nationwide factors impacting teacher shortages – low pay, safety concerns, political pressures, and burnout – Ohio’s pipeline of incoming teachers was shrinking. The number of prospective Black and Hispanic teachers in Ohio’s teacher preparation programs declined 67 percent in only eight years. The scarcity of teachers was made worse during the pandemic, when public schools saw more teachers leaving the profession and fewer teachers entering the pipeline. Cincinnati Public Schools was among the top five districts in Ohio that saw teachers leave between 2020 and 2021.
COVID pandemic pushes state leaders to advance teacher pipeline, learning recovery: While some pipeline recruitment and diversification programs were progressing in Cincinnati, improvements were occurring slowly. The distressing effects of the pandemic in education increased the Ohio Department of Education’s desire for solutions that would have a direct and immediate impact on teacher shortages, learning loss, and kindergarten readiness.
What was the solution?
A dual-pronged approach to improve early literacy and educator diversity: In 2021, cross-sector leaders in Cincinnati decided to invest in the Leading Men Fellowship, an evidence-based program administered by The Literacy Lab. The Fellowship recruits Black and Brown men ages 18 to 24 to teach preschool students the social, emotional, language, and literacy skills they need to be ready for kindergarten. Using a nationally recognized learning model, Fellows are assigned and embedded within a single classroom and provide a range of scripted early literacy interventions to students. Fellows are also provided with tuition assistance, college and career guidance, and ongoing personal and professional support to nurture prospective careers in education.
A proven, data-backed curriculum: Leading Men Fellows administer the SEEDS of Learning curriculum, an evidence-based model proven to increase students’ kindergarten readiness. Fellows used the SEEDS framework in classrooms to teach the tenets of literacy through songs, letter-formation, exercises, reading, and other activities. To measure student comprehension, Fellows use the Preschool Early Literacy Indicators (PELI) assessment, a pre-literacy and oral skills evaluation.
Hands-on training and development: Fellows receive extensive training and mentoring from Leading Men Fellowship’s internal coaching specialists, program associates, and a dedicated program manager. As former educators, Cincinnati’s coaching specialists help Fellows navigate the classroom and deliver the SEEDS curriculum with fidelity.
A dedicated hub for wraparound support: Cincinnati's Leading Men Fellows also receive wraparound services from the CityLink Center, a nonprofit providing various social services out of a central location in the city’s West End neighborhood. By locating at and partnering with CityLink, Leading Men Fellows are able to access housing, transportation, childcare, mental health, and financial literacy services at a single location.
What factors drove success?
Evidence-based literacy interventions: In using the SEEDS of Learning framework, Leading Men Fellows receive a highly structured, multi-tiered plan to deliver developmentally appropriate literacy interventions to preschool students. Throughout the school year, Fellows track their use of literacy songs, exercises, and activities and how students are progressing. The evidence-based curriculum employs a structure where all students in a single classroom are engaged in learning and up to five students identified by the teaching and Fellowship team receive additional one-on-one literacy intervention support.
Professional and personal support for Fellows: A wide net of personal and professional support has been critical in helping Fellows fully engage in the program. To succeed in the classroom, coaching specialists and program associates provide ongoing training and assistance. Outside of the classroom, Fellows engage in a range of personal and professional development and community-based activities that seek to form strong, brotherhood-like bonds, which creates an environment where fellows are encouraged to persist through the program and remain engaged alumni.
Local support from GreenLight Fund Cincinnati: The organization leading the effort to bring the Leading Men Fellowship to Cincinnati was the GreenLight Fund. GreenLight was able to galvanize a wide network of local leaders around the importance of the intervention, secure commitments from several local funders, build relationships with Ohio’s Department of Education, and link the Fellowship to a range of education, workforce, and social service partners, including Cincinnati’s Preschool Promise, Cincinnati Public Schools, the Learning Grove Center, and the CityLink Center.
Availability of resources at the CityLink Center: Because Fellows frequently face barriers to full engagement with the program, the resources they receive from the CityLink Center have been essential for their success. Leadership of the Leading Men Fellowship and the CityLink Center worked closely to identify the services that would be most beneficial to Fellows, including affordable housing, mental health, and transportation. Fellows also attend professional development classes on a weekly basis, learning skills such as budgeting, resume building, basic car maintenance, and more.
Network of supportive, credible staff: Fellows in Cincinnati rely on two coaching specialists, both former educators, who help them navigate their role in the classroom and effectively deliver the curriculum. The coaching specialists were critical mentors for Fellows as they interacted with teachers as peers. The Fellowship’s Cincinnati program manager, Carlton Collins, has also been instrumental in the program’s success, leveraging his strong local reputation to build partnerships, recruit fellows, and serve as a role model for participants.
What were the major obstacles?
Challenges outside of the classroom: Fellows in Cincinnati often dealt with issues in their personal lives that impacted performance in the classroom. Fellows frequently faced issues related to housing, food insecurity, transportation, mental health, childcare, and interactions with police. Fellows relied on their program team leaders for guidance and utilized the CityLink Center for many services to alleviate these issues, but some of these challenges remain persistent due to the systemic factors that young Black and Brown men face.
Building a new counter-narrative against bias: Young Black men experience racial bias more than any other demographic in Cincinnati and throughout the country, affecting society’s understanding of the positive role men of color play in educating students. Program and coaching teams work closely with Fellows, teachers, and school leaders to help promote the importance of empowering men of color in education settings and to amplify the voices of the Fellows that are serving in classrooms to enhance educational opportunities for children in need. Teachers participate in an orientation at the beginning of the school year where they are introduced to the Leading Men Fellowship model and learn what Fellows will be doing in the classroom. While Fellows build their own rapport with teachers, coaching specialists play a key role in liaising between Fellows and teachers throughout the school year.
The student-to-teacher transition: The Leading Men Fellowship recruits men who have graduated from high school, but have not yet earned a college degree. Because many of the Fellows join the organization shortly after exiting school themselves, the transition to taking on the educator role in classrooms can be rocky. Fellows in this age group are still learning what it means to be accountable in a professional role. Fellows gradually hone these skills as the program progresses through their weekly Professional Learning Group (“PLG”) sessions, and find support among their peers within the Cincinnati cohort and throughout the larger Leading Men Fellowship community.
With support from the DC Public Education Fund, The Literacy Lab, a nonprofit providing literacy instruction to students facing racial or economic inequities, establishes the Leading Men Fellowship and introduces its first cohort of Fellows in District of Columbia Public Schools. Since the Leading Men Fellowship’s inception, 48 percent of Fellows have obtained credentialing to become educators, and students in classrooms with a Leading Men Fellow have made significant progress towards kindergarten readiness.
Building from its successful launch in Washington DC, The Literacy Lab expands into four new additional regions throughout the country, tripling its Leading Men Fellowship footprint.
After demonstrating success with multiple cohorts of Fellows in Washington, D.C., Baltimore, MD, Richmond, VA, and Milwaukee, WI, the Leading Men Fellowship receives a multi-year investment from GreenLight Fund Atlanta to launch a cohort in Metro Atlanta. GreenLight Atlanta’s due diligence process forges a relationship with the national team at The Literacy Lab, and opens the door for replication in Cincinnati.
As the educational effects of the COVID-19 pandemic become increasingly apparent, GreenLight Fund Cincinnati’s Selection Advisory Council begins searching for organizations that have unique approaches to early childhood education and learning recovery and a proven record of success. Around the same time, conversations with the Ohio Department of Education reveal that teacher pipeline issues are a high priority for the state. GreenLight and its Selection Advisory Council identify Leading Men Fellowship as a model that could address both priorities.
The Ohio Department of Education receives approval from the U.S. Department of Education for its spending plan for $1.4 billion of American Rescue Plan (ARP) and Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief (ESSER) federal funds. As part of its strategy to strengthen the teacher pipeline, the Ohio Department of Education requests $3.5 million for the Leading Men Fellowship to provide an immediate and tangible benefit to students while also introducing Black men into early childhood careers.
With the potential for public resources to support Leading Men Fellowship, GreenLight Fund Cincinnati begins collaborating with other nonprofits, school districts, and workforce pipeline leaders to create a potential funding strategy. The interest shown from several partners leads GreenLight Fund to invest $600,000 to support the organization’s efforts in early hiring, coalition building, and other startup-related efforts over five years.
With funding secured from philanthropic partners and public funding looking increasingly likely, national Leading Men Fellowship leadership, led by Ivan Douglas, begins preparing for the launch of the Cincinnati site, creating an organizational structure, hiring plan, position descriptions, and other assets for launch.
Ohio House Bill 169 earmarks several federally funded line items for the Ohio Department of Education, including $3 million for the Leading Men Fellowship.
The Leading Men Fellowship is formally introduced to Cincinnati through substantial media coverage that outlines the innovative public-private partnership, providing $4.6 million for the organization through the state of Ohio, GreenLight Fund Cincinnati, the Carol Ann and Ralph V. Haile, Jr. Foundation, Accelerate Great Schools, and the Gladys and Ralph Lazarus Education Fund at Greater Cincinnati Foundation.
Carlton Collins is announced as Cincinnati’s Program Manager. As a well-established Cincinnati entrepreneur and community leader, Collins brings substantial local legitimacy to the program, facilitating partnership building, recruitment, and development efforts.
Leading Men staff vet and assess Cincinnati area schools, evaluating demographics, student outcomes, and institutional buy-in to determine the best sites for the inaugural cohort. The Leading Men Fellowship chooses five preschools within the Cincinnati Public Schools district and one CityLink-affiliated preschool, The Learning Grove, co-located within CityLink, to place Fellows for the 2022-23 school year.
Collins leads the recruitment effort for 20 Fellows, two coaching specialists, and one program associate. Because Fellows are just out of high school, the Leading Men Fellowship recruits from job fairs, requests referrals from high school teachers and coaches, and identifies candidates who may already be pursuing education at community colleges. The initial coaching specialists, Teri Ferguson and LaToya Turner, are both former educators.
The Leading Men Fellowship hosts Ascend Week, uniting Fellows from across the country for a week of rigorous training and professional development. At the Ascend Institute Week and Brotherhood Gala, Fellows are introduced to the SEEDS framework, learn how to build meaningful relationships with students, and network with their peers. The week culminates with a Brotherhood Celebration Gala, where all young men are elevated and affirmed as they formally kick-off the school year.
Fellows are assigned to their classrooms, meet their students, and assess students’ current literacy understanding with the PELI assessment. Fellows begin delivering the SEEDS interventions, including daily sign-ins, when students practice letter recognition and print concepts by writing their names. Throughout the school year, Fellows guide students through repeated read-alouds and transition songs that teach vocabulary, comprehension, phonological awareness, and more.
How did leaders confront the problem?
GreenLight Fund Cincinnati makes early childhood and learning recovery a priority: As the negative impact of remote schooling on learning outcomes was becoming more apparent during the COVID-19 pandemic, GreenLight Fund Cincinnati made learning recovery a priority for its 2021-22 funding cycles. While exploratory conversations with the Ohio Department of Education took place, teacher shortages also emerged as an urgent issue. Through a recent selection process at GreenLight Fund Atlanta, leadership at GreenLight Fund Cincinnati were aware of the Leading Men Fellowship, which could help address the teacher pipeline issue and help students recover from pandemic learning loss. GreenLight Fund Cincinnati leaders took the initiative to engage other public and private partners about their interest in the Leading Men Fellowship model.
Local philanthropists build momentum for greater investment: As GreenLight Fund evaluated Cincinnati's educational needs, several notable Cincinnati nonprofits – Accelerate Great Schools, Greater Cincinnati Foundation, and Carol Ann & Ralph V. Haile, Jr. Foundation – expressed interest in supporting the Leading Men Fellowship. The involvement of local partners encouraged the Ohio Department of Education to consider the Leading Men Fellowship for funding as federal pandemic dollars were becoming available for additional student and teacher support.
Ohio Department of Education creates plan for ARP ESSER funding: With substantial support voiced from nonprofits, school districts, preschool providers, and workforce pipeline leaders, the Ohio Department of Education met with Leading Men Fellowship staff to understand the financial commitment to launch in Cincinnati and its history of success for improving kindergarten readiness and diversifying the teacher pipeline. The Department submits its proposed spending plan for $1.4 billion in federal pandemic relief funds to the U.S. Department of Education, earmarking $3.5 million for the Leading Men Fellowship.
Cincinnati organizations collaborate to serve Fellows: Once public and private funding was confirmed, GreenLight Fund Cincinnati and the Ohio Department of Education worked to establish local partnerships for the Fellowship. GreenLight Fund Cincinnati connected Leading Men Fellowship leadership with the CityLink Center, where the Fellowship set up its on-site hub for Fellows to receive numerous social services. The Ohio Department of Education assisted the Fellowship with identifying the preschool districts that would be the best fit for the Fellowship’s services. Both parties also helped initiate conversations among the Fellowship, Cincinnati State, and Mount St. Joseph University, to create college and career pathways for Fellows to receive college credits, tuition assistance, and additional wrap-around support services.
How was the strategy designed?
Engaging Black and Brown men to serve a majority Black school district: Recognizing that Black and Brown men are underrepresented in classrooms, the Leading Men Fellowship aims to set Fellows on a path to becoming professional educators. At the same time, by placing young men of color in preschool classrooms, LMF provides students with access to positive role models. Ultimately, both strategies aim to narrow the achievement gap between students of color and their white peers
An easy-to-implement, structured curriculum: Conscious of the importance of using an evidence-based approach, the Leading Men Fellowship uses the SEEDS of Learning framework to train its Fellows. The scripted and structured format of the curriculum allows Fellows to comfortably learn the content and deliver it in the classroom. The SEEDS of Learning curriculum contains ample materials, songs, exercises, and activities, keeping instruction fresh for students and enabling Fellows to try different formats for students who need additional support or attention.
Regular reporting and data collection: Recognizing the benefits of consistency for both Fellows and students, Fellows are assigned to a single classroom for the duration of the school year. Fellows report the interventions performed in the class daily and monitor students’ progress. This enables Fellows to work with their coaching specialists as needed to deliver further interventions for students who are not meeting their benchmarks.
Improving persistence through strong cohort dynamic: The success of the program greatly depends on the level of Fellows’ engagement with their roles. Because of this, Leading Men Fellowship leadership creates an environment where kinship among Fellows can grow, sowing opportunities for socializing that are not directly related to their jobs in the classroom. The organization carries this out through weekly PLGs at the CityLink Center and regular team-building get-togethers.
Partnering with center for resources and wraparound services: With six implementation sites preceding the Cincinnati cohort, Leading Men Fellowship leadership knew that providing wraparound support for Fellows was integral to their success in the classroom. They formed a partnership that would allow Fellows unfettered access to the CityLink Center, where they could utilize its resources for housing, transportation, mental health, childcare, career building, and more. CityLink Center became the meeting ground for Cincinnati Fellows to gather and learn valuable life skills in weekly PLGs. Outside of the meetings, Fellows can utilize CityLink’s service coordinators to get assistance as often as needed.
How was the plan implemented?
Choosing preschools for pilot program: Once funding was secured, Leading Men Fellowship leadership conducted a thorough due diligence process to determine which preschools would make the best partners for its inaugural year. Preschools were assessed based on their outcomes, demographics, institutional buy-in, and openness to sharing data. The Leading Men Fellowship ultimately selected five preschools in the Cincinnati Public Schools district and the Learning Grove Preschool, located at the CityLink Center.
Hiring a Program Manager, Program Associate and Coaching Specialist Team: As school partnerships solidified, the Leading Men Fellowship initiated the search for a Program Manager to serve as the local champion and kick off the inaugural Cincinnati program year. Carlton Collins, a well-known Cincinnati leader, was hired and brought credibility and connections that fueled the program’s momentum. The team continued to develop with the addition of a local Program Associate, Kenny Glenn, as well as two Coaching Specialists, Teri Ferguson and Latoya Turner, both highly experienced educators.
Recruiting Fellows: With partner schools and a program and coaching team in place, the Leading Men Fellowship began recruiting Fellows, utilizing high school recruitment fairs, community college recruitment fairs, and traditional online marketing. The organization was most successful hiring Fellows from personal referrals, speaking with high school teachers, coaches, student advisors, counselors, and other mentors who identified young Black and Brown men that would be a fit for the role.
Finding former educators to serve as coaching specialists: Coaching specialists are often the first resource for Fellows who need assistance with any classroom matters, from the curriculum to relationship-building with school staff. Based on the size of its Fellow cohort (20), the organization sought two coaching specialists. Because this position was responsible for regular communication with school staff and teachers, Leading Men Fellowship recruited from a pool of former and current educators who understood classroom and school system dynamics.
SEEDS training introduced at Ascend Week: Before entering the classroom, Fellows participate in Ascend Week, an intensive training where Fellows are introduced to the SEEDS framework and learn how to assess students’ progress across five areas of early literacy development, build meaningful relationships with students, and implement the curriculum with fidelity.
Fellows enter the schools: Having completed their initial training at Ascend Week, Fellows are introduced into a single classroom at one of the partner preschools. Fellows, coaching specialists, and teachers reviewed students’ PELI assessments and created a plan for interventions to best meet the literacy needs of individual students or groups of students in the classroom.
How was the approach funded?
Multi-year investment from GreenLight Fund Cincinnati: Leading Men Fellowship was chosen by GreenLight Fund Cincinnati in 2021 for an investment to improve learning recovery among preschoolers. The program was awarded $600,000 in early-stage funding for local coalition building efforts and start-up technical assistance over multiple years.
Appropriated funds from the State of Ohio: In December 2021, House Bill 169 was signed into law by Governor Mike DeWine, appropriating $3,000,000 for the Leading Men Fellowship. The earmark was made as part of the Ohio Department of Education’s ARP ESSER proposed spending plan to strengthen the teacher pipeline and improve kindergarten readiness.
Foundations pledge support: The Leading Men Fellowship received investments from numerous local foundations, including $500,000 from the Carol Ann and Ralph V. Haile, Jr. Foundation and support from Accelerate Great Schools and the Gladys and Ralph Lazarus Education Fund at Greater Cincinnati Foundation. All of these investments, plus funding from the State of Ohio, totalled $4.6 million in funding for the Fellowship.
How was the approach measured and refined?
Recording national impact: The Leading Men Fellowship measures success of its Fellows through regular surveys that gather information such as their likelihood to pursue careers in education, experience with the program, and personal and professional confidence. The organization also uses surveys to understand the Fellows’ impact on classroom teachers and principals and other school leaders. Of the Fellows surveyed nationwide since its inception, 80 percent have specific plans to continue working in education.
Evaluating against an evidential curriculum: The Leading Men Fellowship uses the SEEDS of Learning framework, which has recently undergone a rigorous randomized control trial that showcases its efficacy in facilitating statistically significant improvements in early literacy student scores. The Literacy Lab measures its success against the evidence in the SEEDS’ research and reports similar gains in students’ early reading skills.
Monitoring student progress: Early literacy comprehension is measured with the PELI assessment at the beginning, middle, and end of the school year to ensure Fellows and coaching specialists are aware of how students are meeting readiness benchmarks. Fellows are also trained to use a web-based customized data management system to track daily early literacy interventions and student progress. Based on the daily student progress data reported by Fellows and bimonthly classroom observations, coaching specialists create plans for additional interventions.
Understanding Fellow needs through regular check-ins: Leading Men Fellowship coaching specialists work closely with Fellows to evaluate how Fellows are faring in both their professional and personal lives. Bi-monthly observations, data monitoring, and ongoing communication between coaching specialists and Fellows illuminate any potential barriers in delivering the curriculum, non-work issues impeding performance, or opportunities for growth.
Results for America would like to thank the following individuals for their support in writing this case study: Ivan Douglas, Heather Jenkins, Mia Harding, Ryan Rucker, Alesha Martin, Carlton Collins, Latoya Turner, Teri Ferguson, and Lernard Freeman of the Literacy Lab and Leading Men Fellowship; Heshimu North and Shannon Oats, Leading Men Fellows; Casey Johnson of the GreenLight Fund; Clare Blankemeyer of Miramar Services; and Johnmark Oudersluys and Dani Watkins of CityLink.
This case study was written by Claire Grady and Ross Tilchin.