HUD head to visit West Phila. Promise Zone

Posted: September 05, 2014

The feds promised to help West Philadelphia. And now a cabinet secretary is showing up to take a look around.

Julián Castro, head of the Department of Housing and Urban Development, will tour parts of the new Promise Zone on Friday, as two local institutions commence a $4 million initiative to transform early childhood education in a troubled part of the city.

The effort, led by the William Penn Foundation and Drexel University, seeks to double the number of neighborhood children in high-quality child care within three years.

It sets other big goals too: Raise children's performance on pre-literacy tests by 15 percentage points. And through that, increase reading proficiency at local elementary schools almost 40 percentage points.

'Huge difference'

"It's obviously a long-term strategy, but one that's important for the future of our children," said Laura Sparks, executive director of the William Penn Foundation. "All the research shows that starting early makes a huge difference."

The White House announced in January that part of West Philadelphia would be designated one of five federal Promise Zones, chosen for a collaborative attempt to reverse decades of decline. Castro is scheduled to visit local childhood centers accompanied by Sparks, Mayor Nutter, and Drexel president John Fry.

"A child's zip code should not determine his or her destiny," Castro said in a statement, adding that the new effort "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."

Extra attention

The Promise Zone covers Mantua and all or part of Powelton, West Powelton, and Belmont, home to 35,315 people. The zone's poverty rate is 51 percent, unemployment 14 percent, and nearly 15 percent of houses are vacant, double the city average.

The Promise Zone designation brings no new federal dollars.

Rather, the government pledged to award bonus points in competitions for aid, giving the area a better chance to win grant money. It also promised extra attention to help groups attack crime, housing ills, and joblessness.

The zone is bounded by the Schuylkill to the east, Girard Avenue to the north, 48th Street to the west, and Sansom Street to the south.

The child-care plan marks one of the first overt efforts to change life in the Promise Zone, specifically aimed at increasing and bettering high-quality options in Mantua, West Powelton, and Belmont.

Funding from the William Penn Foundation will support work in 23 child-care centers, as well as outreach programs for families. The multiyear investment in prekindergarten and early-literacy programs totals nearly $4 million, including money from the Lenfest Foundation.

That foundation was founded by H.F. "Gerry" Lenfest, owner and publisher of The Inquirer, and his wife, Marguerite.

"It gets to two critically important populations," said Lucy Kerman, Drexel's vice provost for university and community partnerships. "Children, before they go to school, to ensure that they go to school 'school ready.' . . . At the same time, you're reaching parents and families when they are really open to learning about children's development."

The William Penn Foundation, Drexel, and other partners intend to offer training for center directors, expose the staffs to model practices, and help providers support one another.

An estimated 1,161 children up to age 5 live in the communities around Drexel, and 75 percent receive child care of low or unknown standards, including poorly educated staff, high turnover, and general lack of resources. Parents in the area want high-quality care for their children, researchers found, but have limited choices and money.

'Our hope'

Work to improve literacy instruction has begun at the local McMichael and Powel Schools, with which Drexel has long-term relationships, with expansion to other schools planned in the next three years, project leaders said. They expect to increase the number of neighborhood children in quality care from 300 to 600 by August 2017.

Sparks described the goals as ambitious but achievable.

"Our hope," she said, "is the change that's [created] here lasts far beyond the initial period."


jgammage@phillynews.com

215-854-4906

@JeffGammage

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