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Drexel Program Offers Support for Children Starting Kindergarten in Promise Neighborhood

October 28, 2021

Andrea DiMola and Cory Johnson (standing from left to right) with a student and a visitor from the William Penn Foundation. Photo courtesy Maria Walker.
Andrea DiMola and Cory Johnson (standing from left to right) with a student and a visitor from the William Penn Foundation. Photo courtesy Maria Walker.

In Philadelphia, the path to kindergarten is made of many roads in different directions with various endpoints — even without a pandemic looming over that decision-making process. Neither pre-kindergarten nor kindergarten is required, preschool is optional, and families can choose whether to send their children to district or charter schools in or out of their neighborhoods.

This was a challenge keenly observed by educators in elementary schools in the West Philadelphia Promise Neighborhood, which covers the area of West Philadelphia located between 48th Street and the Schuylkill River and from Girard Avenue to Sansom Street. Drexel University, which is primarily housed within that area, received a $30 million Department of Education Promise Neighborhood grant for which the University and its partners, including the School District of Philadelphia, work to improve the educational outcomes of the children and their families residing in that area. Those educators had noticed that some children were entering kindergarten unprepared for school, and, having already partnered with Drexel for other initiatives and programs, asked if there was a way for the University to help with a solution.

One solution was on its way to being implemented for the summer of 2020 — but then, of course, the COVID-19 pandemic made its way into the Philadelphia region that spring. From March to September 2020, all but three of the 25 childcare providers that would have prepared children for pre-kindergarten and kindergarten shut down; those were affiliated with the West Philadelphia Action for Early Learning Initiative(AFEL), a collaboration between Drexel and other social service and education organizations to support more equitable access to high-quality early childhood education in the Promise Neighborhood. The options for pre-kindergarten education, and how it was delivered, were drastically diminished and changed … and yet, the initial problem of students not being prepared for kindergarten remained.

One long year later, the Kindergarten Bridge Program was able to be implemented in the summer of 2021 as a collaboration between the West Philadelphia Promise Neighborhood, AEFL and Drexel’s School of Education (SoE) to help prepare children for the transition to kindergarten. The Kindergarten Bridge Program ran as a half-day program four days a week from the end of June to the end of July, and the first year’s class consisted of 16 pre-kindergarten students who live in the Promise Neighborhood or planned to attend a Promise Neighborhood elementary school. All but one of those 16 students have since started kindergarten at Promise Neighborhood partner schools Martha Washington Academics Plus School, Samuel Powel School, and Belmont Academy Charter School. (One student who lives in the Promise Neighborhood is attending a charter school in another neighborhood.)

The Bridge Program was launched and run by School of Education Promise Neighborhood K-12 Education Manager Andrea DiMola and Office of University & Community Partnerships Program Coordinator Cory Johnson. Six School of Education students were hired to help create lesson plans, meet with community partners and families, and teach the students.  

The Bridge Program played out as a big moment for everyone involved. For the students, it was the first time they learned in an official school environment since the pandemic, or at all. For the teachers, it was a novel experience teaching in a school environment since the pandemic, or, again, at all — and, equally important for some, a chance to try teaching younger students. And for the families, who had watched their children learn and stay at home during the pandemic, this was either a fresh experience or a revamped way of doing things; for some parents, it was a chance to start interacting with teachers now as parents.

Left to right: Katie Mathew, Andrea DiMola, Cory Johnson and Maria Walker. Photo courtesy Office of University and Community Partnerships.

“With this program, it really was the first time for everyone involved, including the people who helped put it together,” said Johnson. “We wanted people’s feedback. We wanted to be partners with people in building this program, because we wanted to make this the best experience for everyone: the teachers, the partners, the parents, and the students. Now we’re taking what we learned and what people experienced to build this program and to hopefully make it bigger and better and the best it can be for future years.” 

The Bridge Program took place in person at Martha Washington School, so the students became acclimated to being in a learning environment. When creating the program, the Drexel administrators followed the City of Philadelphia’s COVID-19 guidelines, and students spent a lot of time doing outdoor activities and practicing social distancing and wearing masks — which they would also have to follow in kindergarten. To further prepare the students, Drexel teachers familiarized them with routines and social practices they’d later do in school: standing in line, waiting their turn, not having naptime, eating meals with other people, breaking up the day with lunch and recess, asking to go to the bathroom, and being in school for hours at a time. Lesson plans were also created to serve as introductory precursors to kindergarten.

Katie Mathew, a School of Education doctoral student in her third year in the PhD in Educational Leadership and Policy program, helped Johnson and DiMola structure the program and created literacy, numeracy and social-emotional lesson plans, based on piloting research for her dissertation on how creativity can emerge and be supported in a child’s early years. Mathew also provided support, instruction and guidance to the five Drexel undergraduate School of Education students who taught those lessons to the students and built their own classroom environments. The Drexel participants then evaluated student outcomes using social and emotional assessments and academic skills assessments.

“I found this experience extremely rewarding,” said Mathew. “As a former educator with experience teaching pre-kindergarten through seventh grade, I love being with children and teachers and this was an environment that I have missed during the COVID era. New for me was working on a project involving many stakeholders — including organizations in the neighborhood where I live — that were working towards a common goal, and that collaboration created a lot of exciting opportunities. Also new for me was working with teacher education students, which I found very rewarding and presents a potential new career avenue for me as I think about life after I earn my PhD.”

Mazen Aboud, a second-year secondary English education major in the School of Education, was one of those Drexel students. Though Aboud is working on a degree to teach high school-level students, the opportunity to work with younger children was a huge draw, as was the ability to work in a collaborative setting as a teacher.

“It was exciting but also a little surprising and anxiety-inducing when I realized that it would just be me and my fellow undergraduate in the classroom all day with no older, more experienced adult overseeing us, though they were always down the hallway or one text away if we ever needed assistance,” said Aboud. “Regardless of my worries, I’d say the experience was one of the best I’ve ever had. Working with these students, I learned so much about them as individuals, about myself and what I need in the classroom to teach successfully, about my partner and how to work with another teacher as equals in the classroom, about real classroom management, about problem solving with students, and about the fundamentals that are important to create a functioning classroom.”

Aboud co-taught with Sydney White, a third-year elementary education major who wanted to use the teaching opportunity to try working with children this age and also help with the transition to a co-op this fall at an early childhood center. Another benefit? The ability to connect with students and gain experience in a position with the most responsibility White had ever had in a classroom. 

“It was incredibly rewarding to see how much the students grew in such a short amount of time,” said White. “After the program, we took time to reflect on how each individual had grown. Each student advanced in different areas. Some benefitted from the social interaction and developed friendship and emotional skills. Other students developed stronger academic skills. Although there were challenges along the way, it felt amazing to see the progress and know we had helped in some way. It was also good for me to get better at lesson planning and teaching, and this was my first time back in the classroom since the pandemic started, which was so exciting!” 

Drexel student teachers Sydney White and Mazen Aboud with Bridge Program students. Photo courtesy: Office of University and Community Partnerships.

Teachers and staff of the Samuel Powel Elementary School visited the program, so those students attending kindergarten there in the fall could get to know them better. That’s just one example of how that school was involved in shaping and participating in the Bridge Program. Samuel Powel Elementary School Principal Kimberly Ellerbee had made some requests about Drexel and AEFL providing support for kindergarten readiness, and Drexel’s ability to create and provide that support is part of why AEFL was formed.

“Seeds for the Kindergarten Bridge Summer Program were planted long before AFEL or even the Promise Zone existed,” said Drexel Project Director for AFEL Maria Walker. “Principals from the community continually pointed out the need for this program and it’s through the truly collaborative effort of Drexel SoE, AFEL, Promise Neighborhood and others that the seed of need grew into a viable program — one which we hope to continue and replicate.”

The fact that the program was started, really, by that request from the community, and able to be built out using Drexel expertise and resources, reflects the University’s commitment to civic engagement and serving its community.

“Through Drexel’s work with the Department of Education grant and especially with the Bridge Program, we’re really focused on cradle-to-career support,” said DiMola. “We do a variety of things, starting with helping kids transition in kindergarten, be academically successful, succeed in school and have engaged families. We also look at health and safety, like physical safety in the neighborhood and at school, and social and emotional safety at home, too. And with the Bridge Program, we were able to really focus on what the community was asking for, and what the schools were asking for.”

Several Drexel programs and partners, as well as local organizations, also contributed to the program. Members of the College of Nursing and Health Professions’ PA SNAP-Ed/EAT RIGHT PHILLY Program, which provides free nutrition outreach programs and services, gave two virtual nutrition lessons a week for three weeks in which the students learned about healthy eating and tried and made their own foods like fruit kebabs and yogurt parfaits; by the last day of programming, one student got up to give the teacher a virtual hug by putting his arms around the laptop (and then everyone else wanted to do that too).

The Academy of Natural Sciences of Drexel University was one of the cultural organizations for which the program offered free tickets to the students and their families, along with the Philadelphia Zoo, Please Touch Museum and Smith Playground; SEPTA day passes were also given out to be used to go to those places. And every Tuesday, students and their families received a produce box from Hungry Harvest, an organization dedicated to sustainably eliminating food waste and closing food access gaps.

By the end of the Bridge Program, it was clear that it had been a success for all. The Drexel students received experience planning and teaching; the Promise Neighborhood teachers welcomed kindergarten students better equipped to start their school career; the students gained the tools needed to start school on strong footing; and the families could see their little ones off to school in a safe learning environment. 

“It was so nice to hear from families at pick-up that they were happy that their student was learning and making friends, which was a big highlight for many,” said DiMola.

Seeing the students develop not just educational skills, but social and emotional skills was another “big highlight” for families and the Drexel teachers and administrators.

“I’ve had a lot of experience around kids in the classroom and summer programs, but I truly haven’t seen the kind of growth that I saw in just the five weeks over the Bridge Program, and this is a testament to our teachers as well,” said Johnson. “At the start, you could tell some of the kids had been cooped up at home and maybe hadn’t been in a classroom setting before. During the first week, they came in all shy and cowering behind their family members’ legs. But once they felt more comfortable, then they were walking next to their family member to go to the classroom, and by the end of the last week, they were running through the door and leaving mom and dad behind because they were so excited to be there.”

Office of University & Community Partnerships Community Resource Coordinator, Sherra Dunn, had firsthand experience with the program both professionally and personally, because her granddaughter Mia participated in the program and Dunn is a Promise Neighborhood resident. Dunn was happy that her granddaughter had the opportunity to go to an in-person learning experience and meet new friends in a diverse setting; the daily updates and weekly insight on the lesson plans was just as much as a bonus, as were the produce boxes and free tickets. Mia was so excited about the program, Dunn said, that even after it ended, “she’d pull out the papers she’d bring back from Bridge and say she needed to review for kindergarten.”

“This was a really good quality program,” said Dunn. “And when you find something that a five-year-old enjoys getting up every day to go to, that is a blessing in itself.”