Education nonprofit finds a new leader and new direction.

As the new executive director of FutureReady Columbus, Jane Leach decorates her office with photos of smiling Hilltop preschoolers in graduation caps and gowns. The images serve as constant reminders of why she took this position, a job that allows her to pull together her experience as a Columbus teacher, administrator, professor and inner-city preschool founder to help the city improve education by targeting its youngest residents: children birth to 5.

“My passion is for all children in the city of Columbus to have what I would expect for my children and now grandchildren,” Leach says. “In my world, every child in the city of Columbus has my last name, and I will advocate for them as if they're my flesh and blood.”

Leach stepped into the leadership role with FutureReady Columbus in April, a year after the departure of its inaugural leader Lillian Lowery. A public-private partnership, FutureReady Columbus initially looked to improve education in Columbus cradle to career but narrowed to a birth-to-5 focus during the leadership transition.

“When you invest early in the lives of children, you change the trajectory of their future,” Leach says. She points to research showing that when children enter school ready for success, they are less likely to be incarcerated, they have higher high school graduation and employment rates, and there is higher job satisfaction by both the employer and the employee. “Isn't that powerful? So how could I not say yes to this job?” she says with a laugh.

FutureReady Columbus board co-chairs Columbus Mayor Andy Ginther and George Barrett, executive chairman and former CEO of Cardinal Health, want to position Columbus as a national leader with this initiative. “There could be huge returns on investment with a great plan that is well funded and resourced,” Ginther says.

Barrett says the business community feels strongly that the key to a vibrant economy is to make sure every child has the opportunity to get a proper education, and that FutureReady's tighter focus is where the organization can have a more immediate impact. “If we can set the tone here early in a student's life, we're going to have a generation of children who can participate in American life in a different way, and we'd like to be the model for that,” Barrett says.

Though Columbus is among the first to have a citywide initiative aimed at ages 0 to 5, Leach says she has yet to hear a dissenting voice in her listening tour with stakeholders such as Columbus Public Health, the United Way of Central Ohio, Nationwide Children's Hospital, CelebrateOne and representatives from schools, preschools and nonprofits with “skin in the game.”

Leach sees FutureReady's role as aligning the good things going on in the community to address the needs of preschool children. This includes professional development for teachers and accessibility to high quality daycare, preschool, healthcare and mental health services, along with housing, safety, nutrition and food availability. “Birth to 5 is still a big window when you think about all the influencers on that child's health and development in those first five years,” Leach explains.

In her experience with both the city and suburban schools in Columbus—serving as principal of Highlands Elementary on the Hilltop and an administrator for Hilliard City Schools—Leach saw firsthand the need for stronger preschool education. She founded Hilltop Preschool in 2009 and in 2017 was chosen by Mayor Ginther to chair the Hilltop Early Childhood Partnership with the goal of doubling the number of children enrolled in quality pre-K in the Hilltop by 2020.

Leach is a Columbus native with a career path that makes her knowledgeable and widely known in the different facets of education in Columbus. Ginther says Leach has the “street cred and passion” to bring people together and get things done. “She can bring the public and private sector together and bring the full force and weight of the organization to bear on this birth to 5 space like we've never done before in this community,” he says.

Board co-chair Barrett adds that Leach's legacy in early childhood combined with her local ties will allow her to apply national best practices to a local environment.

In the coming months, Leach plans to add several team members and develop a strategic plan. But she'll keep her emphasis the same. “These children have to be at the heart of every decision. It's not about you, it's not about me, it's about the children.”

Mary Sterenberg is a freelance writer.