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.

Tell us what you think about . .

The Early Childhood Action Collective (ECAC) is an initiative of Public Health Management Corporation (PHMC), with grant support from the William Penn Foundation. ECAC is committed to building the knowledge base around high quality early childhood learning and identifying promising policies and practices to support the well-being of young children in Philadelphia and Pennsylvania.  

The PA Director Credential

As part of its work, ECAC is conducting a survey around director credentialing in Pennsylvania. Our goal is to better understand how the credentialing process works from the perspective of early care and education staff, including challenges to obtaining a credential and how well coursework applies to directors' day-to-day work. We plan to use survey findings to inform recommended changes to the current credentialing process, and to identify areas where technical assistance and professional development may help directors to better serve their students and support their staff and programs. 

If you complete the survey and leave your email address, you will be entered to win one of 10 $25 Visa gift cards!

Please take a few moments to complete the survey--your feedback will be valuable to improving director credentialing and training in Philadelphia.

Early intervention in early childhood classrooms

ECAC is also conducting a survey to better understand how ECE providers in Philadelphia work with young children with special needs. Results will inform a white paper on early intervention and inclusion of children with special needs in ECE classrooms in Philadelphia.

Please take a few moments to complete this survey, and to pass the link on to your staff/colleagues so they can complete the survey as well. 

If you complete the survey and provide your email, you will be included in a lottery to receive one of 20 $25 Visa gift cards once it has ended!

We would love it if you could complete BOTH surveys—and you will be eligible in both drawings if you do!

Finally, if you just love answering questions, you live in Philadelphia, and you want a chance for one more gift card, the folks over at Read by 4th would like to hear what you think too.


How Cities Embrace Their Infants and Toddlers

By Judy Reidt-Parker and Harriet Dichter  The brain undergoes its most rapid growth during the first few years of life. As cities like Philadelphia expand their pre-Kindergarten (pre-K) services, it is important to consider the supports, care, and education that very young children may receive prior to entering pre-K if we are to achieve the best results. With this in mind, we analyzed initiatives supported by and/or implemented in 11 cities that feature infant and toddler care.

Read the executive summary

Read the full brief

Evaluating PHLpreK

The National Institute for Early Education Research (NIEER) will be conducting a comprehensive, three-year evaluation of PHLpreK with the support of a $1.8M grant from the William Penn Foundation. NIEER will be examining classroom quality, assessing child development (including language, literacy, math, executive function, and social and emotional development), and interviewing pre-K providers. These activities will provide insights into the quality of programming and  will assist program providers and the City in making ongoing improvements to the program. NIEER will weigh in on the program’s design and implementation throughout the evaluation, and will also conduct  cost-benefit and economic impact analyses of the program. NIEER has evaluated several state preschool programs to date, including those in Arkansas, New Jersey, and Oklahoma, and has been involved in city evaluations in San Antonio, Seattle, and West Palm Beach, and there have been many other evaluations of preschool programs by a range of research organizations in cities across the country, including Boston, Chicago, Denver, and Seattle. 

New York City illustrates how evaluation can be used to inform program development and assist parents. NYC ramped up service very quickly in 2014 to provide services to 51,000 children (and subsequently expanded the program to serve even more children). FiveThirtyEight outlined the scope of the evaluation: staff at a sample of 200 of the City’s 1,600+ providers received surveys about program implementation; at a portion of these 200 sites, evaluators conducted student assessments, and at another portion of sites, the evaluators conducted teacher and parent focus groups. 

In addition, last month, EdWeek reported on ‘Quality Snapshots’ that NYC is currently providing to assist parents in choosing a preschool—including outcomes from the Classroom Assessment Scoring System (CLASS), the Early Childhood Environment Rating Scale-Revised (ECERS-R) (both are classroom quality measures), and a community survey. The snapshots also include contact information and hours for programs, and any additional services offered. These  are just one example of how outcomes of an evaluation can be used within the community in real time to provide value. 

Program evaluation has been encouraged form the federal level as well. The Preschool Development Grant awarded by the federal government requires evaluation of state programs as a tool for continuous improvement, and as a source of data for ongoing improvement of programs nationwide. A paper from CEELO in 2015 outlines various approaches those states have taken to evaluate programs, including guidance for state policymakers.

Some program evaluations have gone on to assess the impact of preschool programs over a long period of time, these include the Perry Preschool Project, the Abecedarian Project, and the Chicago Child-Parent Center; all have followed children into adulthood to determine the impact of programs on academic and other outcomes, including health, involvement in crime, and engagement in the workforce. 

For a look at what is known about preschool programs from a range of excellent evaluations, check out Investing in Our Future: The Evidence Base on Preschool. The website summarizes the results of a number of short- and long-term preschool evaluations, and explains what is known overall about the benefits of preschool programs.