Building Early Links for Learning (BELL) Forum: First Year Findings and Next Steps

By Sara Shaw

Sara Shaw is a doctoral candidate in the Human Development and Family Studies Department at the University of Delaware, and visiting scholar at People's Emergency Center in Philadelphia, PA.

About half of children in shelters for families experiencing homelessness are under six years old. The Building Early Links for Learning (BELL) project brings together homeless advocates, early childhood educators, and developmental scientists to support these young children. Born out of a collaboration between PHMC and local universities, this two-year William Penn Foundation-funded initiative seeks to (1) increase the developmental friendliness of shelter programs and (2) increase the enrollment of young children experiencing homelessness in high quality early learning programs in Philadelphia. 

The BELL initiative recently celebrated its first year with a forum held on March 16th at the United Way of Greater Philadelphia and Southern New Jersey. More than 80 people from across the region, including federal partners and local service providers, registered to learn more about the first-year findings from the project. 

Attendees heard about successes from BELL investigators. Presenters discussed several ways to track and use data on early education enrollment of young children in shelter, as well as data on the quality of shelter environments for young children. Findings highlighted improvements made to increase the developmental friendliness of the city’s emergency and transitional housing programs. 


Before and after photo at Red Shield Family Residence where the BELL team funded a private breastfeeding space.

Project partners with The Cloudburst Group also shared findings from focus groups with early education providers, housing providers, and parents experiencing homelessness. These activities resulted in practice recommendations on how to best address families’ needs and access to high quality early education options.

Amanda Atkinson, with PHMC, shared findings from a landscape analysis of successful approaches to increasing access to high quality early learning programs for young children in shelter, including funding, service delivery model, and program components. Amanda’s presentation highlighted examples of successful models from across the country, as well as practice implications for Philadelphia. She also discussed how the Philadelphia Head Start Partnership worked with the BELL team to identify potential locations for implementing a locally designed Head Start program option for shelter residents. 

Marsha Basloe, senior administrator with the Administration for Children and Families, also attended, commenting that the BELL is leading the nation in addressing the needs of homeless children.  Marsha noted that the BELL project has the potential to be a model for how to best support the early learning needs of young children experiencing homelessness. 

The BELL project looks forward to starting its second year of implementation and incorporating these findings into a set of best practices to support the enrollment of young children in shelter into high quality early learning programs.

For more information about the Building Early Links for Learning project, and to see slides from the forum, please visit the People’s Emergency Center website.