How an Urban University and a Big Foundation Teamed Up on Early Childhood Education

Earlier this year, West Philadelphia was identified as one of the Obama Administration’s five federally designated “Promise Zones,” and was included in a new initiative to revitalize high-poverty communities. This initiative includes everything from creating jobs to improving education and boosting the economy, and now it is also benefiting from a collaboration between the William Penn Foundation and Drexel University.

The neighborhoods in focus are Mantua, West Powelton, and Belmont, which have a bad reputation for low-quality child care options. Early education has been a long-standing priority for the William Penn Foundation, and Drexel University has been conducting research about the barriers that parents face when seeking quality child care for their kids. Cost, availability, location, center hours, and lack of easily identifiable attributes of quality care are some of the most common barriers they’ve encountered.

On top of that, over a thousand children under five years old live in the communities that surround Drexel University, and a vast majority of the child care centers in this campus region are low quality.

“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,” said Julian Castro, Secretary of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

But the Penn Foundation and Drexel are far from alone in implementing this initiative in West Philadelphia. They’re joined by a coalition of experts including Philadelphia Local Initiatives Support Corporation, Delaware Valley Association for the Education of Young Children, Children’s Literacy Initiative, People’s Emergency Center, the School District of Philadelphia, and other local early education providers. The William Penn Foundation’s money will be going toward 23 local child care centers and outreach programs to get families involved.

The collaborators expect the number of neighborhood kids attending high-quality child care to jump from 300 to 600, which is a pretty lofty goal. As with many early education programs receiving funding in the Philadelphia area this year, the underlying focus is on early literacy. Penn, Drexel, and the other initiative partners want to increase scores on pre-literacy tests by 15 percent and elementary school tests by 40 percent.

“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,” said Elliot Weinbaum, senior program officer at the William Penn Foundation. And without early intervention, young Philadelphians will continue to lag behind a year or more—all the way until their Drexel University application forms are due.