The building that houses Appletree Childcare, a former church, has deep roots in the community. On the back end sits a cornerstone marked with the year: 1882. The building was refurbished in the 1960s and remained an active church, while the childcare center grew in its basement. However, from a single bathroom for all classrooms to structural issues blocking Appletree from accessing PHL PreK seats for their center—the basement was limited.
Then came an incredible opportunity. The church was planning to leave its sanctuary, which opened the doors for Appletree to expand. Director Alyssa Gibson reminisces about this moment, “For 20 years, all we had was downstairs, but then this opportunity came to redesign the sanctuary upstairs into the space we needed for our work and our families.”
The opportunity to expand was exciting, but an expansion of this size would require support. Converting a church sanctuary into a high-quality education center would not be easy—but then came Fund for Quality. With help from the William Penn Foundation and through a partnership between Reinvestment Fund and Public Health Management Corporation, Appletree received funding to complete its expansion. “The funding from FFQ gave us the chance to create an upstairs and include PHL PreK slots. We currently have 20 and next year hope to expand to 40 slots,” Gibson explained, “that’s 40 free high-quality seats for families in our community.”
The funding from FFQ also allowed the facility to create its ideal space. Amanda, a head teacher, remembers the excitement of designing the learning space, “it was amazing to design a classroom around our needs, especially getting an in-classroom bathroom!” The outcome of FFQ was two sun-soaked classrooms with in-class cot storage and bathrooms.
Today, it’s Monday morning in one of those sun-drenched rooms at Appletree. A group of preschoolers works through a mental health lesson with their teachers. The students practice checking in with their bodies, explaining their feelings, and breathing techniques for self-regulation. Meditation is a part of Appletree’s Mental Health Mondays, a recent addition to the center’s schedule and spearheaded by Gibson.
The inclusion of Mental Health Mondays is just one part of the new initiatives at Appletree Childcare as the longstanding center responds to shifts in its community and facilities. Reflecting on the impact of this small but powerful imitative, Gibson explains, “One parent told us that one day she was having a hard time regulating her emotions and stress. Her daughter, one of our students, came up to her and said, ‘Mommy, it is time to calm our bodies down.’ That was really amazing to us. That, to me, is real community work!”
Since its opening two decades ago, the community surrounding Appletree has changed. Morrell Park, once a predominantly white upper-middle-class neighborhood has become more diverse. Gibson explains how this shift has impacted their work, “we are growing into a much more diverse area, instead of just cookie-cutter families and worldviews. Because of that, we want to create safety for our families and students. That means all families, not just the ones who traditionally lived here, that includes LGBTQIA families, Black families, and single-parent families.”
Appletree has made a concerted effort to embody these changes in the classroom by introducing more diverse materials and lessons. In addition, the shift has impacted teachers’ daily actions and lesson planning. “I work to just get down on every child’s level and help them be themselves and accept that fully. It requires me to build that trust with the kids,” Amanda added.
Demographic changes are not the only changes Appletree is experiencing. The post-COVID recovery has revealed just how essential childcare is for families. As a result, Appletree developed programs like Mental Health Mondays to offset the impacts of emotional and mental health issues children were experiencing. “The philosophy is always about meeting the children where they are, without adult-led expectations. We meet them where they are and encourage them with kindness and compassion,” Gibson explains about their “whole-child integration” approach. This approach is evident in the classrooms, where children have ample space to self-direct throughout various learning spaces. Materials are placed on a child’s level, allowing children easy access and encouraging the sort of self-direction the staff hopes to instill in all their students.
One of the FFQ-supported classrooms is used for out-of-school care. Appletree’s school-aged program is enabled by a longstanding partnership between Appletree and its neighbor, John Hancock Elementary. The future for Appletree is exciting, especially as they prepare for 20 more PHL PreK students. Additionally, the staff continue to dream and imagine new ways to support and co-create with John Hancock Elementary, which in some ways is an extension of their Appletree family, “it is amazing to see the elementary kids graduate because so often I have memories of them in my preschool or infant room,” Rachel, the classroom assistant, says smiling.
For now, Gibson and her team continue working to support the community they love. Their approach to children mirrors the path taken through FFQ. “You show up,” Gibson says, “FFQ talks to us. They enjoy being around us and being around our kids. It feels like a very person-centric experience that we might not always get when working with funding. I appreciate the approach that you all make.” Centering the people is not just essential to establish these partnerships; it is the guiding approach for Gibson’s staff to support kids. “I hope they leave every day with a smile, and they usually do!” Rachel chuckles, thinking back to how hard they have worked to support their students, especially as they carry on post-pandemic.
The story of Appletree is not singular. Throughout the city of Philadelphia, many centers are facing similar challenges. All providers are working to address the impact of COVID-19 on their children, staff, and community. The need for financial support for capital expansions and facility improvement is also pressing. Yet, much like Appletree, these centers and their staff remain intensely dedicated to the communities they serve, constantly centering and uplifting their student and families’ needs and voices.
Through innovative approaches like FFQ, the providers can be centered and supported. This sort of “person-centric” funding can produce a profound impact. As we continue to rebuild, early childcare providers’ critical role in our economy’s strength becomes more apparent. Keeping providers at the center of decisions and building wrap-around support is essential to expanding accessible, high-quality childcare—the same best practices providers use to center and empower our city’s youngest scholars.
All images were provided by REC Philly photographer, Victoria Wilcox.