Chara Fisher Jackson: preparing children to thrive

Although Chara Fisher Jackson has held a variety of roles, her career has centered around one issue: Equity.

“Equity is what drives me,” she said. “The experiences of my family have taught me how equity can be a catalyst for how generations can move out of the most challenging circumstances. Access to education made the most difference.”

Chara Fisher Jackson of Preschool Promise
Chara Fisher Jackson of Preschool Promise (Photo by Wendell Gibbs Jr. for Movers & Makers)

Since 2019, when she became executive director and CEO of Cincinnati Preschool Promise, Fisher Jackson has worked directly toward that education piece, driving the organization’s mission: “to ensure equitable access to high-quality preschool so that every Cincinnati child is prepared for kindergarten.”

“My view of equity is taking proactive steps to make sure everyone has access to what they need, in the way that they need it, when they need it, to give (them) a chance and an opportunity to thrive,” she said.  

That philosophy dovetails with the work of Cincinnati Preschool Promise, which takes a systemic approach: Not only does it help families find and afford high-quality preschool, but it also provides support for preschool teachers and providers. Providers must be in the Cincinnati Public Schools District and can be family child care providers; single or multicenter sites; and parochial schools with “a quality rating of 3, 4, or 5-star in Ohio’s Step Up to Quality (SUTQ) system.”

“Ultimately, everyone benefits from the Preschool Promise being successful,” Fisher Jackson said. “Entrepreneurs and preschools are set up well. Teachers are paid fairly and are willing to stay in this profession. Children are learning and they’re there.

“If you could see what I see in one day visiting a preschool, you would never question the value of early childhood education,” she added. “It will take your breath away.”

Education was a family value

Fisher Jackson’s maternal grandparents were farmers who didn’t attend school beyond junior high. Yet Fisher Jackson’s mother and all six of her mother’s siblings attended college.

“My grandparents worked hard, and my parents worked just as hard, but the difference in their life experiences is because of access” to education, she said.

Fisher Jackson’s mother – who participated in sit-ins at Woolworth’s in Greensboro, N.C., during the Civil Rights movement – eventually earned a doctorate in education and worked as a college professor. Fisher Jackson’s father was a CPA. 

Even with how tuned into education her parents were, when Fisher Jackson wanted to learn to read, they recognized that they couldn’t teach her themselves. She needed preschool. 

“I am who I am, I have the luxury of being the leader of the Preschool Promise … because investments were made in me by loving parents and loving educators in those early years,” Fisher Jackson said. 

Unexpected opportunities 

 Fisher Jackson grew up in Marietta, Ga., just outside Atlanta, and attended Oglethorpe University before earning a law degree from William & Mary Law School. After serving as a bailiff in a Georgia state court, she worked for a series of Georgia-based nonprofits, including one that focused on equity issues in the court system. Eventually, she landed what she thought was her dream job: pursuing her passion for civil rights work at the ACLU in Georgia, where she rose from legal director to deputy director to interim executive director. 

Eric Kearney, president and CEO of the Greater Cincinnati and Northern Kentucky African American Chamber of Commerce and a fellow lawyer, knew of her work there. “She’s famous on a national level for some of the cases she’s done,” he said.

They included challenging racial profiling in Georgia; challenging the practice of shackling women during childbirth in Georgia’s prisons; challenging the denial of an “adequate public education” (as guaranteed by Georgia’s constitution) for children sent to an alternative school; and challenges on voting rights and absentee ballots.

But after a series of particularly difficult cases, Fisher Jackson decided to take a break at the end of 2014. 

“Complex impact litigation is a tough job, and I was ready for change,” she said.

A desire to continue doing work that made a difference ultimately brought her to Cincinnati. Her partner lived here, so she’d traveled back and forth – until she saw that the Greater Cincinnati Urban League was hiring an executive director. Within 11 days of interviewing, she had the job and was moving to Cincinnati. 

“The city was wonderful and welcoming to me in a way I’d never expected,” she said of her new hometown. “There’s an energy here that I haven’t seen everywhere (of) ‘What can we do together?’ ”

Fisher Jackson saw the role at Urban League as an opportunity to get in front of issues she’d litigated about. 

“We can help people be on the right path … if we start earlier in the process,” she said, with the help of programs such as the job training, advocacy and small business support that the Urban League provides. 

Fisher Jackson eventually became interim CEO of Urban League of Greater Southwestern Ohio. Working there was a “great adventure” that allowed her to “touch every part of the community.” 

But when she got a call from a search firm seeking Cincinnati Preschool Promise’s next executive director, she saw a way to get to the very core of issues in the community by helping young children. 

“If you show up to kindergarten ready to learn, you’ll continue to be successful throughout your academic career,” she said. 

Her skills and background made her a perfect fit for the job, according to Vanessa Freytag, president/CEO of 4C for Children, who was one of Fisher Jackson’s references. Freytag describes it as a “complicated role” involving multiple organizations, political issues and legal ramifications, among other challenges. 

“I cannot think of another person who has the breadth of skills to not just handle all of that, but to work through it always, always to the betterment of the community,” Freytag said.  

Chara Fisher Jackson of Preschool Promise
Chara Fisher Jackson (Photo by Wendell Gibbs Jr. for Movers & Makers)

Making a Promise

Cincinnati Preschool Promise resulted from a Cincinnati Public Schools levy, passed in 2016 and renewed in 2020, that allocated $15 million per year to “expand access to quality preschool.” 

The idea is to eliminate barriers, such as preschool costs and the fact that there weren’t enough high-quality preschool “seats” to serve every child in every family, Fisher Jackson said. So in addition to helping families with tuition, there is a need to “help fund and create high-quality preschools with experienced and prepared teachers and an appropriate learning environment,” particularly because tools such as quality playground equipment and evidence-based curriculum are expensive, she said. 

With a good preschool foundation, children will start kindergarten ready to learn – and that’s what’s happening, she said. She shared a pre-CPP report that compiled 2014 data from Cincinnati Public Schools. It noted that only 52 percent of children entering kindergarten “were classified as ‘on track’ for school readiness as measured by language and literacy skills.” According to Cincinnati Preschool Promise’s five-year impact report, 73 percent of preschoolers who received tuition assistance through the organization went to kindergarten ready to learn. 

That report also noted that CPP has supported 7,955 preschoolers through tuition assistance; created 1,415 new high-quality seats through quality improvement; and provided 185 teacher promise grants. There are 268 providers in the CPP network. 

Leading the way

Freytag believes Fisher Jackson has been successful in the role thanks to qualities such as her insight, compassion, loyalty and humility. And there’s her ability to “cut to the chase” and find common ground to bring multiple sides together.

“I’ve seen her navigate a really dicey situation politically, and it’s like watching a master class,” Freytag said.

“She is a great communicator,” she added. “She’s very skilled at shifting that communication style in a way that best connects with the group.” 

Through his work at the chamber, Kearney has partnered with Fisher Jackson both during her time at the Urban League and at CPP.

Through the years, he has appreciated her leadership skills, open communication, charismatic personality and sense of humor. He also admires her ability to excel at both policy and program implementation. “It’s rare to have both of those skill sets in one person,” 

“She deeply cares about the work,” he added, calling her compassion “exemplary.”

Fisher Jackson thrives on constant improvement. “I always want to do more, learn more, build more,” she said.

This has included continuing her education beyond her law degree. She earned her master’s in criminal justice through the University of Cincinnati’s online program, and she’s pursuing an educational leadership certificate at Harvard. 

“I did accept that I may be a little bit of an overachiever … but I’ve also learned when it’s good to say no and how to prioritize,” she said.

Beyond her work, Fisher Jackson values her Nichiren Buddhist faith and her time with family, whether that’s her partner – now fiance, and his three daughters and granddaughter – or her father, who she talks to every day and visits in North Carolina every other month.

After all, family is where her equity journey began. “Seeing the equity in everyone is something my parents gave me,” she said. “You’re not better than anyone because you have access to education or because you have this job or title. Everyone has value.” 

Looking ahead, her biggest concerns for CPP are finding the next generation of early childhood teachers and making sure they’re paid fairly. She also thinks about the ongoing investment in CPP. (The current levy ends in 2025.) Her day-to-day experiences fuel her passion for the work, challenges and all. 

“Every day when I go to work I see myself. I see myself in the educators who are our teachers, in the preschool providers who are the entrepreneurs and workers. (They’re) women who look like me and the people I grew up with,” she said. 

Then there’s her joy in seeing a child’s eyes light up when she gives them a book. And success stories of families who are grateful for the help getting their children into a good preschool.

“I haven’t met a parent who doesn’t want the best for their child,” she said. “They need to know how to access it.” 

Thanks to her work at Cincinnati Preschool Promise, more families will have that access to high-quality preschool.

“Without Chara, our community and our early childhood education prospects would certainly be less than what they are today,” Freytag said. “She has been instrumental these last (few) years in helping the preschool promise become what we hoped it would be when it was voted in. She’s an exceptional woman.”

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