Families in Pennsylvania’s 19104 zip code—federally designated as the “West Philadelphia Promise Zone”—are struggling in deep and persistent poverty. The best weapon against poverty is education, and that’s why the work of Action for Early Learning (AFEL) is so important. A community-based program led by Drexel University, AFEL combines the forces of social service and education agencies with residents to create an education support system for students and families.
“Our work currently focuses on young children and takes us into schools, childcare centers, and community hubs, where we provide technical assistance, coaching, and training to support education improvement among neighborhood children,” said Maria Walker, Project Director for Drexel University’s University and Community Partnerships.
AFEL’s long-term goals to help pull the area’s children out of poverty are twofold: 1) Get them kindergarten-ready, and 2) Have them reading at grade level by the end of third grade. In order to accomplish this, AFEL has established a number of programs, such as the Family Ambassador Program, in which community members are recruited and trained to educate area families on the importance of quality early childhood education.
“One of the most important things we do in the community is to raise awareness of how important it is to get the kids out of the house and into a formal childcare facility,” said Family Navigator Dwayne Walker, one of the Family Ambassadors. “That way, the kids receive more formal education and exposure to reading really early.”
The Wi-Fi hotspots provided by Mobile Citizen have been a tremendous help, especially when Family Ambassadors are using tablets to conduct the 450 surveys that AFEL completes per year. The surveys are critical in understanding the needs and then services that are required to serve this Promise Zone.
“Our partnership with Mobile Citizen has allowed our team members to be more impactful at the grassroots level,” Maria says. “For example, our team of Family Ambassadors are deployed into the community to conduct surveys, distribute books, and share information and resources. They are able to be more effective in providing additional information and responding to neighbors’ inquiries as a result of having access to reliable, uncapped internet service with their Mobile Citizen hotspots.”
A huge success story has been the Book Depot, a network of 30 stations that provide free books at businesses along Lancaster Avenue.
“Since 2014, AFEL has been able to reach more than 3,000 community members and distribute more than 25,000 books to children, in part due to the ability to have on-the-ground access to reliable Wi-Fi through Mobile Citizen,” said Maria. “We can use the internet to communicate more completely, better track the types and quantities of books needed, get the books to the right place quickly, etc.”
Another success in improving the quality of early childhood education in this Promise Zone area is AFEL’s STARS-improvement program. To date, 26 early childhood education providers have joined the AFEL Alliance of Childcare Providers, which connects them to professional resources to improve their Keystone STARS level, Pennsylvania’s quality rating system, which goes from zero to four. “They are our ‘Rising STARS,’” Maria says. So far, 69% of AFEL Alliance providers have improved their quality rating, and 57% have a high-quality rating of three or four STARS, up from 35%.
In addition, AFEL supports parents and caregivers as their child’s first teacher, building their knowledge of child development and early literacy best practices. In the Promise Zone area, 25 families are now participating in Parent Child Plus, a home-based kindergarten-readiness program.
“We can offer a two-prong approach,” said Jordan Wilson, who works with AFEL’s data and evaluations. “We can quickly determine what services are needed to help the child and the parent, and the parent, in turn, helps the child. We’re able to solve issues at two different angles because we can have those in the field enter family and child needs data quickly with their tablet—and their mobile hotspot.”
Thanks to the Wi-Fi hotspots provided by Mobile Citizen, AFEL has been able to reach the community faster and stay more connected. With more hotspots, AFEL aims to reproduce its Family Ambassador Program and expand it into additional zip codes in Philadelphia, as well as work to distribute reliable internet to families in the area.
“AFEL’s relationship with Mobile Citizen has truly been invaluable for our team members to conduct the important community-based work that leads to long-term positive impact on children’s education outcomes,” said Maria.