City and William Penn allot $500K each to improve early childhood education

This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.

by Sonia Giebel

Councilwomen Jannie Blackwell, Blondell Reynolds Brown, and Maria Quiñones-Sanchez (back) announced increased funding for early childhood education at City Hall on Tuesday. ​A new grassroots organizing group has gotten backing and money from the city and the William Penn Foundation to encourage the expansion of quality early childhood education.

Called Philadelphia for Early Childhood Education (PECE), the group on Tuesday announced a $500,000 grant from the Office of Housing and Community Development and another $500,000 grant from the William Penn Foundation. The city investment was arranged by Councilwomen Blondell Reynolds Brown and Jannie Blackwell.

The city money will be used to help renovate facilities and increase their capacity. The William Penn grant is for equipment and teacher training.

"Early childhood is the single most significant period of development in a child’s life," said Reynolds Brown in announcing the initiative.

PECE hopes to increase the number of early childhood education seats deemed “high quality” by the state’s Keystone STARS rating system, and to gain traction for a generally under-recognized issue.

There are now just over 100,000 preschool-aged children in the city, but only 12 percent of those attend high-quality institutions, according to PECE’s analysis of census and other data. Of the city’s youngest residents, almost 60 percent are living in poverty, and 36 percent in deep poverty – in families with incomes below $5,700 a year.

PECE, a coalition of parents, grandparents, teachers, providers, and some advocates, came together in March. That was when the School Reform Commission, citing the District’s budget crisis, voted to privatize 2,000 of its Head Start slots. District-run Head Start is more expensive, so privatizing slots would increase access, SRC members said.

But many early childhood advocates feared that privately run slots would not be as high-quality as those run in schools, which require certified teachers.

The city will focus its investment on expanding programs already deemed 3- or 4-STAR quality, on a scale of 1 to 4, according to Janet Filante, the executive director of Childspace CDI. Her group works to improve the training and the job quality of child-care workers, who are often low-paid.

After that, it will look to improve programs at the 2-STAR level. Providers looking to run Head Start programs will compete for grants likely to range from $25,000 to $50,000, Filante said.

Sharon Easterling, the executive director of Delaware Valley Association for the Education of Young Children (DVAEYC) and a PECE member, said that quality preschool yields lasting effects. Children who attend such programs are twice as likely to graduate from high school and half as likely to be incarcerated, she said.

“We have to do better,” said Easterling. “If we really want to close the achievement gap, one of the most important strategies that we can undertake is to transform more than 50,000 seats in Philadelphia, taking them from babysitting to programs of early learning.”

Reynolds Brown highlighted that a $1 investment in early childhood education pays a $7 return, attained through lower costs for such things as special education and incarceration, coupled with higher tax payments from people who are employed. She said that the community needs to make sure that “leaders understand that [early childhood education] really does matter.”

“This is a major, major step, but we still have work to do to make sure that this is sustainable over the years,” Reynolds Brown said.

Councilwoman Maria D. Quiñones-Sánchez, who was also in attendance at the announcement, described the allocation as an investment in the future.

“We need to start planning, articulating what we want, so that … we are talking about what Philadelphia will look like in five years, 10 years, and what we want our children to experience.”

Quiñones-Sánchez said that programs need to start the application process for grants immediately. If the money is underutilized, she noted, there won’t be much support for a renewal next year. Reynolds-Brown said there would be a briefing session to explain the application process to potential grantees.

Easterling suggested following in the footsteps of cities like Chicago, Miami, and Union City, N.J., where there are “dedicated streams of funding” for early childhood services.

“There is a lot of room for conversation and for us to be creative and to figure this out together,” she said.

Union City has almost all of its students enrolled in high-quality early education centers. Despite the majority of 3- and 4-year-olds coming from poor and non-English speaking backgrounds, the high school graduation rate there is 90 percent, Easterling said.

Sonia Giebel is an intern at the Notebook.