Informal Learning: Penn’s Latest Idea for Tackling Early Literacy Shortfalls

The Philadelphia museum of art

The Philadelphia museum of art

One goal of education funders around the country has been to improve literacy and reading performance by the third grade. This has been a key issue for many funders lately, and a rallying point that transcends vastly different belief systems and political views. Studies show, after all, that being able to read by third grade is a telling sign of whether a student will graduate high school. 

However, research shows that recent efforts to boost reading by young students have been disappointing. The William Penn Foundation is one of the leading funders in Philadelphia of early learning and literacy, K-12 education, and school readiness.

A recent initiative underscores how Penn is also open to supporting Philadelphia’s youngest residents in unconventional ways through its education grantmaking. The foundation has announced a new grant opportunity that’s all about informal learning experiences. It’s called the Informal Learning Initiative, and it’s aimed at engaging underserved, young children and their families in interactive activities outside the classroom. The goals of these activities are language and literacy, but Penn is going about supporting them in an unprecedented way.  

Schools and early learning centers aside, children can learn a lot outside of formal settings. However, low-income parents aren’t as likely to visit informal learning institutions like museums and libraries. Some studies have suggested that low-income kids are three times less likely to visit these kinds of places than those from affluent households.

The Philadelphia funder is looking to support seven to 10 programs that are partnerships between informal learning institutions and community-based organizations. So basically, you’ll need to be collaborating with someone else to get in on these grants.

Museums and libraries are the main informal institutions people think about, but other organizations may find opportunities with Penn here as well. Other examples of informal learning institutions include science centers, arts organizations, historic houses, makerspaces, and cultural centers. But these types of institutions will need to work with social service organizations, neighborhood associations, religious institutions, medical providers, recreation centers, or other groups like these.

The opportunity is for two-year projects that run from August 2017 to August 2019. The focus is exclusively on underserved communities in Philadelphia. And according to the foundation, “The ultimate goal of this initiative is to provide literacy-rich experiences in underserved communities and better understand how informal learning impacts child and caregiver interest, ability, and engagement with literacy.”

Groups with total project budgets up to $200,000 and that have secured at least 75 percent of their operating budgets from non-Penn sources will fare the best with this initiative. This initiative is also moving quickly. Initial inquiry forms are due on February 17, and applicants will be selected to submit full proposals by February 28. Read through the foundation’s Request for Inquiries document to learn more about this grant opportunity.

Meanwhile, the search for a new executive director at the William Penn Foundation still appears to be ongoing. Janet Haas posted a message on the foundation’s website on December 12 about the job requirements for this available top position and its work with Diversified Search to find potential candidates. Stay tuned for updates on this front.