Vanguard and William Penn Foundation Award $2.6 Million in Grants to Drexel’s Early Learning Initiative

Two grants totaling $2.6 million will help support Drexel University’s efforts to improve early childhood education in West Philadelphia. They are the first significant grants to benefit early education in the West Philadelphia Promise Neighborhood. The grants will support Drexel’s West Philadelphia Action for Early Learning Initiative during the next three years. Vanguard Strong Start for Kids Program awarded $1.63 million to the program and the William Penn Foundation, which has previously supported Drexel’s early learning initiatives, provided a grant for $987,000.  

“The Action for Early Learning Initiative remains an important component in Drexel’s community investment strategy, which includes a cradle-to-career approach to education support for families in the Promise Zone,” said Drexel President John Fry. “Drexel is grateful for Vanguard and the William Penn Foundation’s shared vision and investment in quality early childhood education, which will go a long way to improving the lives of children.”

The West Philadelphia Action for Early Learning Initiative (AFEL) is a Drexel-led collaboration of social service, education and community agencies working to improve the quality of early childhood education in the West Philadelphia Promise Zone. The program grew out of a William Penn Foundation planning grant, which revealed the dearth of high quality early childcare providers and its negative impact on neighborhood children’s kindergarten readiness. With seed money from the Lenfest Foundation and William Penn Foundation, AFEL was formed in 2014 to create an education support system for families in the high-need, high-poverty West Philadelphia Promise Zone.

A child holds a book and looks through the pages

AFEL’s goals include increasing access to high-quality early childcare, as well as building families’ awareness and knowledge of the importance of high-quality care, so that West Philadelphia children are kindergarten-ready when they enter school and reading at grade level by third grade.

“Research consistently shows the long-term benefits of high quality early childhood education in determining a child’s success,” said Maria Walker, AFEL project director. “Children who are kindergarten ready and reading by third grade are more likely to graduate from high school and continue with post-secondary training or college. These two grants will go a long way to supporting children and families in the community.”

When AFEL started its work four years ago it established the West Philadelphia Alliance of Childcare Providers – a group of childcare providers who receive intensive technical assistance geared toward quality improvement – and the Family Ambassador Program, a cohort of community parents and caregivers recruited and trained to provide peer-to-peer information on the importance of high-quality early childhood education. From this foundation, AFEL has made significant improvements in the Promise Neighborhood. Outcomes since 2014 include:

  • 26 percent more local children enrolled in high-quality care
  • 48 percent increase in the number of childcare providers to improve their quality rating
  • 13 percent improvement in the average early literacy scores among West Philadelphia children

With the help of the William Penn Foundation’s grant, AFEL will continue to advance quality improvement in supporting early childhood education teachers’ development through training and technical assistance; strengthening the AFEL Alliance of Childcare Providers to connect more West Philadelphia childcare providers to opportunities for quality improvement; and promoting Pre-K social and emotional skill building to support kindergarten readiness.

“Early childhood education benefits children when the quality is high,” said Elliot Weinbaum, Great Learning Program director at William Penn Foundation. “This next phase of our support will help partners throughout the Promise Neighborhood continue the work of ensuring that all children are exposed to the evidence-based practices that we know are most effective to maximize learning.”

Vanguard Strong Start for Kids Program will help expand the AFEL Family Ambassador program to reach more families in the Promise Neighborhood and support implementing an AFEL “Family University” to create a community-based parenting education program, modeled after the Harlem Children’s Zone, to support family knowledge-building.

“The Vanguard Strong Start for Kids program™ is proud to support improvements in early childhood education through Drexel’s West Philadelphia Action for Early Learning Initiative,” said Carra Cote-Ackah, director of Vanguard’s Community Stewardship efforts. “Research has demonstrated that investments made early in children’s lives can set them on the path towards more successful life outcomes, and we’re delighted to help provide more high-quality opportunities for young children to learn, grow and thrive in our local communities.”

Child turning the pages of a book

AFEL’s mission and goals closely align with those of the federally designated Promise Zone that spans from the Schuylkill River to 48th Street, and from Girard Avenue to Sansom Street. While this area has been a Promise Zone since 2013, this designation didn’t come with additional federal funding until the announcement in 2016 of the Promise Neighborhood grant. Drexel is the lead agency for the U.S. Department of Education Promise Neighborhood Grant, helping to coordinate the initiative and share its expertise across all aspects of the program, as well as leading collaborations with the community and school partners.