Pt. Breeze Agency Is Model For Mayor’s Community Schools

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OTIS BULLOCK … “We’re already doing it.”

OTIS BULLOCK … “We’re already doing it.”

by Tony West
Mayor Jim Kenney based his winning campaign last year on a bright new proposal for “family service centers” where children’s educational needs can be met while his family learns to cope with many other challenges.

If you want to know what these centers might look like – check out Diversified Community Services, Inc. This Point Breeze-based agency has been implementing this concept for a couple of years now. Two weeks ago it organized a conference for citywide providers to explain and discuss the model the Mayor seeks to put into place.

The conference, “2 Gen Are You In”, was based on the understanding that giving children born into poverty – which 39% of Philadelphia’s are – a path out of poverty requires a multi-generational approach. The child’s chances aren’t good unless their parents’ chances are improved at the same time.

It’s a path DCS embraced two years ago, said its Exec. Dir. Otis Bullock, with the help of a $438,000 grant from the William Penn Foundation.

“We already had two high-quality early-childhood education centers,” Bullock related. Now we have added counseling for housing and energy needs, parenting and computer classes, and a host of other supportive services, in one convenient location.

“Our program is very consistent with Mayor Kenney’s agenda for pre-K and community schools,” Bullock stated. “But we’re already doing it.”

Poverty is a holistic problem, Bullock noted. There is usually more than one issue that leads to low income; and low income in turn makes it harder to deal with any problem.

Social services have long existed to address different poverty-related needs. “But many of the funding sources were isolated,” Bullock said. Historically these folks work in silos.”

And it can be draining for poor parents to shlep from one service provider to another. Poverty is a time-consuming job in itself. When constantly trudging from one agency to the next, poor families are apt to cross wires, get conflicting instructions and drop out.

“William Penn brought it all together at DCS: a one-stop shop for families,” said Bullock. “A parent can drop off a kid for child care in morning, then go upstairs and work on their résumé or take a computer class.”

It is critical that Philadelphia take both a long-term approach to educating children along with a short-term approach to raising the income of their parents, Bullock said. While research has shown good early-childhood education improves students’ educational performance in later years, these gains can be erased if the child’s overall life remains mired in the crises that buffet poor families.

Intervening in poverty requires a long-game strategy, argues Bullock. “It takes five generations” totally to reverse the consequences of poverty, he said.

DCS is suited to play the long game, as it dates back to a soup kitchen that was founded in 1834. In 1893 it became the University of Pennsylvania Settlement House. After a merger with the Dixon House in 1968 it adopted its present name.

DCS bases its approach on a model developed by Ascend, a “hub” at the Aspen Institute. The Aspen Institute is a nonpartisan educational and policy-studies think tank that focuses on the environment, education and policy studies.

The “2 Gen” conference was “sort of our coming-out party,” Bullock said. “For the first time we put early-childhood education pros and workforce-development pros in the same room together.”

DCS’s record attracted substantial support from major private donors. In addition to the William Penn Foundation, backers include Vanguard, the Penn Center for High Impact Philanthropy, Public Health Management Corp. and NUUHCE Dist.1199C Training Fund.

Political leaders attending the conference included 2nd Dist. Councilman Kenyatta Johnson and State Rep. Jordan Harris (D-S. Phila.), whose districts include Point Breeze, along with the City’s new Pre-K Dir. Anne Gemmell.

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