Ex-cannabis CEO initiates plan to pay for universal pre-K in Toledo

A soon-to-be nonprofit organization has started soliciting private donations to help pay for a citywide educational initiative that includes access to preschool and tuition-free college for Toledo Public Schools students.

Helping Our Population Educate — or HOPE Toledo — is the latest philanthropic effort of Ottawa Hills High School graduate and Chicago area resident Pete Kadens.

Mr. Kadens, who retired at age 40 as the CEO of national cannabis company Green Thumb Industries, said he wanted to turn his attention to high-impact philanthropic work where he can make a difference in the lives of youth and the impoverished. He has served as chairman of Chicago-based homeless aid agency Streetwise, but he wanted to invest in his hometown.

“I’ve been thinking a lot about what can we do to change the fate of the education system and poverty in Toledo, and I think it all comes down to changing the opportunities of our youth,” he said.

The result is a five-pronged effort that complements Toledo Mayor Wade Kapszukiewicz’s push to bring free preschool education to all Toledoans.

HOPE Toledo aims to give out $1.5 million in annual preschool aid to 4-year-olds, pay for part or all of TPS graduates’ college tuition, develop a support network for academically struggling high school students, bring national speakers to TPS classrooms, and provide bonus opportunities for successful teachers.

The effort is in the early stages, and Mr. Kadens is seeking existing nonprofits to collect donations on HOPE Toledo’s behalf as a fiscal sponsor until it is officially recognized as a tax-exempt nonprofit organization. The mayor said he intends to highlight its progress at his 2019 state of the city address, which likely will be held next month.

Mr. Kadens researched several similar programs across the country, including Arkansas, Pittsburgh, Baltimore, and Kalamazoo, Mich., and tailored his model to fit Toledo’s needs.

Though the city itself won’t have a formal role in HOPE Toledo, the mayor has been working alongside Mr. Kadens during the past few months to solicit interested donors — individuals, businesses, and foundations that can contribute to a tentative $60 million fund-raising goal this year that would sustain the program’s first five years.

“This really has nothing to do with the operations of city government, but it has everything to do with the quality of city that we all live in,” Mr. Kapszukiewicz said. “That is why I want to use my position as mayor to try to raise money in the private sector, to provide leadership and vision and try to reach this goal.”

Part of Mr. Kapszukiewicz’s successful mayoral campaign in 2017 was a pitch to figure out how to offer universal pre-kindergarten education to Toledoans, no matter what their financial situation.

More than 80 percent of TPS students aren’t ready for their first day of kindergarten, according to state assessments, and the mayor wants to change that.

“City government has no direct jurisdiction or responsibility for the quality of education, but yet there are few things that are more important to the welfare and long-term health of a community than education,” he said.

He said he is excited about where HOPE Toledo can lead, but he acknowledged that $1.5 million in preschool tuition aid won’t cover every 4-year-old in the city. There likely will need to be other sources of funding, including private donors separate from HOPE Toledo, before citywide free, quality preschool becomes a reality.

Mr. Kadens said he donated to Mr. Kapszukiewicz’s mayoral campaign because he liked his approach, and as the two got to know each other, they began brainstorming ways that Mr. Kadens could make an impact on the future of Toledo.

Those sessions led to HOPE Toledo, and Mr. Kadens said he is pleased to have the mayor so involved in his efforts.

“We as Toledoans have missed opportunities over the years, and I think we are now in a position with the current mayor where we don’t have to miss those opportunities anymore,” Mr. Kadens said. “It’s a lot more than just lip service. He’s putting time and effort into this to make this happen.”

Ultimately, HOPE Toledo’s goal is to make the city a more attractive place to learn and a more attractive place to live.

“I feel very good about the research we’ve done. I feel very good about the possibilities here,” Mr. Kadens said. “When Toledoans find out about this, I hope they get really excited.”

First Published January 8, 2019, 8:36pm

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