Early Literacy Gets a Big Boost in Philly, Thanks to Two Local Funders

The Philadelphia School District has made a priority of early literacy for a while now, through programs like the Read to Me Early Literacy Program, Children's Literacy Initiative Model Classroom project, and the Children’s Literacy Initiative, a nonprofit headquartered in Philadelphia that worked with 250 nationwide schools last year. It’s one of the greatest local needs in Philadelphia, considering that out of the district’s 48,000 K-3 students, 85 percent live below 185 percent of the federal poverty level and 10 percent don’t speak English as their primary language.

But apparently, these efforts haven’t gone far enough because the district just announced a new $30 million commitment to get kids reading at their grade level by fourth grade. This targeted push probably wouldn’t be possible without a couple of big-name foundations in town—namely the William Penn Foundation and the Lenfest Foundation.  

Neither of these shows of support came as a huge surprise, but it is interesting to see how this money will be spent in our schools. Penn gave $6 million and Lenfest kicked in $4.5 million for the local cause, while the district is putting in about $12.7 million of its own.

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The city-wide initiative is called READ by 4th! Campaign, and it’s described as a three-pronged effort emphasizing the need for private funds to bail out public educationagain.

“We are elated that two foundations of this size and stature believe in such extremely important work and have chosen to invest in us,” said Superintendent Dr. William R. Hite on behalf of the school district. “I am pleased that the investment prioritized professional development for educators. Enhanced teacher training will assist in enabling us to reach the goal of grade-level literacy for all students by fourth grade.”

These are the three elements of the Penn and Lenfest-supported early education initiative:

  • Teacher training
  • On-site job support from trained instructional coaches
  • In-class libraries to provide better resources for students

Penn’s support for early education is fairly broad and focuses on state policy, citywide coordination, and teacher preparation. In addition to grade school literacy, Penn is interested in the birth-to-five demographic, especially after the mayor announced a program called “A Running Start Philadelphia” to increase the number high-quality child-care providers and help families access them. 

Meanwhile, Lenfest’s early learning funding is exclusively committed to reading proficiency by third grade. Since Lenfest is spending down the bulk of its assets over the next decade, "Early Learning and Career Pathways" grants are initiated by invitation only.

And the district isn’t wasting any time launching these programs, either. Week-long intensive training sessions have already begun for over 700 teachers and principals in the district. Over 2,000 teachers are receiving this training over the next three years.

Barely over half of Philadelphia third graders can read at a third-grade level, and the 2015-2016 school year is quickly approaching. For local funders such as Penn and Lenfest, this funding issue is about more than just improving child literacy. Countless studies have linked low literacy levels to juvenile delinquency, homelessness, poverty, and unemployment.

So thank goodness for these big bail-out funders, because otherwise, Philadelphia could have even more serious problems on its hands once these kids get a little older. But even foundations with millions of dollars in assets can only commit so much to any single cause. The Philadelphia School District is still seeking $3.4 million from the public for the classroom libraries that the initiative calls for; the funds will ultimately be matched by the foundations.