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William Penn Foundation and Drexel Join Forces to Transform Early Childhood Education in West Philadelphia

August 26, 2014

Drexel's Main Building

The William Penn Foundation and Drexel University today announced a new initiative in which they are working together with community child care centers and other local agencies to help tackle some of the issues facing early childhood education in West Philadelphia and help young children get a strong start in life. This partnership will support the West Philadelphia Early Childhood Education Initiative (WPECE) to increase the supply of high-quality child care in the Mantua, West Powelton and Belmont neighborhoods, an area that has historically been plagued with low-quality child care options. 

A broad coalition of experts and practitioners will help implement the initiative, including Philadelphia Local Initiatives Support Corporation (LISC), Delaware Valley Association for the Education of Young Children (DVAEYC), Children’s Literacy Initiative (CLI), People’s Emergency Center (PEC), the School District of Philadelphia, and many local early childhood education providers. Funding from the William Penn Foundation will support quality improvement work in 23 local child care centers, as well as outreach and awareness programs for local families on the importance of starting children on an early learning path and recognizing developmental milestones. The initiative leverages a multi-year investment in pre-K and early literacy programs totaling almost $4 million, including funding from the Lenfest Foundation and significant in-kind support from the partners.

In January 2014, West Philadelphia was identified as one of five federally-designated Promise Zones, a new initiative that is helping revitalize high-poverty communities across the country through a hybrid of efforts including creating jobs, increasing economic activity and improving educational opportunities. This new collaboration between the William Penn Foundation, Drexel University and Initiative partners will help address some of the educational challenges that the Promise Zone program seeks to alleviate.

“The Obama Administration’s Promise Zone initiative helps spur public and private investments to strengthen communities and expand opportunity for all. A child’s zip code should not determine his or her destiny, odds of attending a good school, or lifetime economic opportunities,” said Julián Castro, Secretary of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. “This collaboration between the William Penn Foundation and Drexel University can serve as a model for other communities that are looking for innovative ways to rebuild neighborhoods and prepare the next generation for college and career.”   

There are 1,161 children ages 0-5 in the communities surrounding Drexel University and 75 percent of those neighborhood children are in childcare settings of low or unknown quality standards. These settings do not position children for later success as they encounter high staff turnover, low staff education levels, and a dearth of educational resources.  

The work of the William Penn Foundation and Drexel University and its partners will address these challenges by offering training for teachers and center directors, exposing staff to model childcare centers and practices, and networking providers to support one another.

Research conducted in the community by Drexel and its partners found that parents are committed to providing high-quality child care for their children but face barriers in securing that level of care. These barriers include cost, availability, location, center hours, and easily identifiable attributes of quality care. With that in mind, another key component of this initiative will engage parents, families, and community members to help them to identify, locate, demand, and select high quality options for their young children. Individual outreach by neighborhood leaders, community events, and family field trips will all play a role in engaging families in this effort.

“Our collective effort is to create a comprehensive system of educational supports for families in this neighborhood, beginning with empowered parents and high quality child care options, aligned with literacy-rich pre-K and Head Start programs that prepare children for school, and culminating in successful classrooms at our local public schools,” said Lucy Kerman, vice provost for University and Community Partnerships at Drexel University.  “We have the best possible partners at the table to make this system a reality, including experts from around the City, local nonprofits and providers with deep roots in the community, and parents who are passionate about their children’s success.”  Work to improve literacy instruction has already begun at McMichael and Powel Schools, with the intention to expand to other schools over the next three years. 

The impact of this effort is expected to be significant, with the number of neighborhood children attending high-quality child care to double from 300 to 600 students by August 2017, and many more students in subsequent years. Beyond attendance, the groups engaged in this work are aiming to increase children’s performance on pre-literacy tests at least 15 percentage points, with the hope that these new early learning experiences will result in a nearly 40 percentage point increase in reading proficiency at local elementary schools.

“Research shows that by improving access to high-quality, early childhood education, we have an opportunity to help transform the trajectory of young people’s lives,” said Elliot Weinbaum, senior program officer at the William Penn Foundation. “Children from low-income families who do not have access to high quality preschool start kindergarten with language and pre-reading skills 12 to 14 months behind their more advantaged peers. High quality care can erase those gaps. Our hope is that by working together, we can create a significant improvement in the quality of early childhood education available in this community, and help start these children on a path that leads to educational, personal, and professional success.”