Between 2013 and 2021, Philadelphia expanded access to high-quality early childhood education (ECE) through 11,194 new seats, with roughly one-quarter supported by the Fund for Quality (FFQ). FFQ is a long-standing program managed by Reinvestment Fund and PHMC, with funding from the William Penn Foundation and Vanguard Strong Start for Kids Program. Over the past 8 years, FFQ has supported Philadelphia’s high-quality ECE providers to expand their services. This partnership has resulted in 2,883 new ECE seats for Philadelphia. FFQ is rooted in the belief that providers know best the needs of their centers and communities. We met with two longstanding Philadelphia-based childcare providers receiving FFQ funding—Children’s Village and KenCrest Learning Center—to discern how the provider-centered approach has helped them achieve their project goals.
If you aren’t looking closely, you might pass by Children’s Village but once through its doors, the vibrant center comes to life. Currently, the primary occupant of a small office tower in Chinatown, Children’s Village is a 4-STAR and nationally accredited early childhood center. Serving upwards of 420 children and their families, Children’s Village has become a model for childcare providers in the Philadelphia region.
Children’s Village first began as a service to garment workers in the Chinatown area. It saw the need of low-income, immigrant workers and sought to support them. In the process it became, in many ways, a gateway for underrepresented communities to the larger education landscape. This commitment to its community lives on, even amongst the upheaval and changes they are experiencing. “Chinatown might be changing but its importance as a space will never change,” Mary Graham the current executive director says. She also reflects on some of the challenges that have arisen in her community, including the displacement of long-term residents due to disruptive development, “We have fought with Chinatown residents against a Phillies stadium, two casinos, and now we are fighting alongside them against a 76ers stadium.”
Mary is herself a testament to the history of Children’s Village. As she celebrates her 46th year in the ECE industry, she recounts getting her start in the industry as a part of Family Services with Children’s Village, a role and team that is still integral to Children’s Village today. Her dedication to the support and care for Philadelphia children goes beyond the walls of her current center. In fact, Mary’s first interaction with FFQ was as a consultant. In the “Planning Stage” of an FFQ project, consultants are brought on to support childcare directors as they prepare for an expansion. This stage of the program is something that sets the program apart as Mary states, “Fund for Quality is very different, you have consultants, you have support, you have follow-up.”
For Children’s Village it has paid off to always be forward-thinking. Any change or development is thought through long before it is initiated; the goal is always to serve children and their families. This approach was what propelled Mary into the role of consultant, but it was the center’s eventual expansion to the 6th floor that would transition Mary and Children’s Village from a consultant to a participant. “The landlord offered us the sixth floor, which would enable us to open more preschool rooms and allow us to use a pre-existing toddler room on the first floor as an infant room,” Mary explained, “this change would finally allow us to offer services for infants.”
After applying for and receiving FFQ financing, it enabled the program to add nearly 60 high-quality seats to the center and fill a need in the community for infant care. The FFQ process also came with program support. “The support you receive comes from people who ask questions and will help you think about your project’s impact on the whole program,” Mary says reminiscing on some of the big questions and challenges in their project that FFQ collaboratively approached. This investment into Children’s Village has been key to the organization’s recovery post-pandemic and its ability to continue its established presence in Chinatown and the community.
KenCrest Services is another long-standing childcare provider within the city of Philadelphia. Beginning in 1905 as an organization designed to combat the tuberculosis epidemic, KenCrest would soon go on to provide support for children with disabilities, becoming one of the first Philadelphia-based childcare centers to do so.
“When all people are included and able to be themselves, it is best for everybody,” Melanie Brennan, Executive Director of Early Learning Programs, states reflecting on the organization’s shift to create integrated learning environments for students regardless of ability. Now, with over a century-long history of serving the Philadelphia community, KenCrest has expanded to offer 7 early childhood centers around the city, all of which are high-quality centers as determined by Keystone STARs.
For KenCrest, the community is a guiding force and the key to their success. This dedication to community is what led KenCrest to consider creating a center in Northeast Philadelphia. It had become apparent that there was a need for high-quality care in the Northeast, their other site had a long waitlist and was geographically far from some of the families getting added to the list. They began looking for a location for their center, eventually finding an old furniture warehouse that was for sale. The process of turning a warehouse into a childcare center, and a high-quality one at that, would not be easy or inexpensive. This is where FFQ stepped in.
“Our space was not designed well for the full community care approach we wanted, we knew we had to change it to maintain a high-quality program,” Melanie says, “it was a big risk, we weren’t sure we would be successful, honestly if we didn’t partner with Fund for Quality our programs wouldn’t be here, it was that serious.” It was their belief that students and communities needed this service, and with other funding sources falling through, FFQ offered a lifeline and enabled them to take on the risk that sat before them.
KenCrest’s model of community care is rooted deeply in the unique communities they seek to serve. They survey and engage the community long before developing their programs and putting them into action. “FFQ does the same,” says Melanie, “FFQ is always focused on looking at the neighborhood and how can we support the families living there.” To Melanie, both parties take a “strengths-based approach” that looks at the community and how to build upon it, not disrupt it. This process is achieved through the FFQ Planning stage, which delves deep into the operational and business functions of the center. This includes support in marketing and enrollment, with a community-centered approach. This level of support is possible due to the partnership between Reinvestment Fund and PHMC, who has the technical assistance resources to benefit providers. FFQ also models that approach with the providers it supports, as Melanie puts it, “Fund for Quality doesn’t tell you what to do, they listen to what you need and provide it in a meaningful way.”
The project in the Northeast was not the first time KenCrest and FFQ worked together, but it was the largest project. It included an expansion of 100 more high-quality ECE seats for the Northeast community and a total rework of the space. The furniture warehouse was entirely changed, now housing a spacious and sunlit ECE center with an incredible playground and outdoor space on the side. The center remains committed KenCrest’s core mission, serving all students regardless of ability or language. The program boasts a robust evidence-based curriculum as well as strong English as a Second Language (ESL) support in both the classroom and in its community offerings of services, events, and activities. Melanie attests their established community presence was a catalyst for their strong return, post-COVID.
While Philadelphia has continued to make strides expanding licensed supply and high-quality capacity since 2014, the level of high-quality supply in the city is still only sufficient to serve 37% of the estimated maximum potential demand. According to a 2022 study by Reinvestment Fund’s research and analysis team titled, Estimating Changes in the Supply of and Demand for Child Care in Philadelphia, the efforts of FFQ and other coordinated efforts by the city and other stakeholders have helped close these gaps.
“One of the theories behind FFQ was that if you have limited dollars and you invest them in high shortage, high need areas, you’ll attract rather than crowd out new private investment,” says Senior Policy Analyst, Jacob Rosch. “What we found was that if you look at the providers that are located near FFQ-funded programs, they respond to FFQ activities by making their own investments in raising their quality. So FFQ investments not only help the specific programs that that are funded, but also encourages other provides to invest in their programs and improve their quality.” Between 2014 and 2019, for example, the study found that providers located near FFQ-funded sites added an average of 27 new high-quality seats after FFQ investments occurred.
The expansion projects of Children’s Village and KenCrest Services are just two of the 51 completed high-quality expansion projects in Philadelphia funded by FFQ since 2014. These two established and large providers are more than just centers for care; they are anchor institutions within their respective communities. They provide childcare, family services, health services, and they also are advocates and protectors for their communities. We see Chinatown as our community, over the years the numbers of families living here decrease but the presence and importance has not, Mary Graham states. For KenCrest their overall goal may seem simple, but it’s an important one, we are here to teach kids how to exist in community, with the hope it will strengthen their communities.
By supporting these essential components to a healthy community, Reinvestment Fund’s FFQ program can strengthen not just the individual childcare center but the entire community. The investments made into these projects ripples beyond the center’s walls and reverberates throughout their neighborhoods, and just like Melanie says, high-quality learning centers can create good neighbors.