Mayor Kenney visit South Philly PHLpreK Center

With recent supreme court upholding of soda tax, city discusses future of the early education program.

This week, Mayor Jim Kenney dabbled in crafts with preschool campers from Little Learners Academy on Porter Street. The school is one of more than 80 of the city’s PHLpreK sites — a product of the Philadelphia Beverage Tax. (GRACE MAIORANO/South Philly Review)

With guidance from preschoolers, Mayor Jim Kenney crouched on pint-sized chairs to craft a concoction of sand and feathers last week.

The children, students of Little Learners Literacy Academy on East Porter Street, occupied a few of the thousands of early education seats being filled across Philly through the city’s locally-funded PHLpreK program — a product of the 2016 Philadelphia Beverage Tax.

On Tuesday, Kenney, alongside Councilman Mark Squilla and PHLpreK director Julie Beamon, convened at the Lower Moyamensing education center to converse about the importance of the program and its recent surge of resources, especially after the Pennsylvania Supreme Court’s July upholding of the contentious charge on sugary drinks.

“We’re going to open up this program now to the full complement of 5,500 kids that we’re looking for,” Kenney said. “We had to hold off a little bit until we won the case to make sure we didn’t have to give the money back. But, now, we’re moving forward with pre-K, with our community schools rollout and with our parks, recreation center and library refurbishment.”

During fiscal year 2019, the administration estimates roughly $78 million in revenue to be collected from the 1.5 cents per ounce of sweetened beverage, according to the city’s five- year fiscal plan. Through fiscal year 2023, $245.8 million of soda tax funds will be designated for PHLpreK, say city officials. About $382,464,000 in total revenue is expect to be collected from the tax over the next five years.

According to the city’s five-year fiscal plan, more than 17,000 children in the city between 3 and 4 years old did not have access to quality pre-K programs prior to the implementation of PHLpreK.

“Soda is certainly something I drink — probably too much of. I pay the tax, but it’s not something you have to buy,” Kenney said. “It’s a choice, and if you choose to buy it, and you pay a little bit of a premium to make our kids healthier and more educated, that’s fine.”

Currently, there are more than 2,000 3- to 4-year-olds participating in the early education program in 86 providers across the city. With the supreme court’s ruling, thousands more are expected to enroll over the next five years.

While registration is still ongoing, about 75 percent of the 2018–2019 seats are already filled, according to Beamon, who says the South Philly location is especially representative of the student and employee diversity of PHLpreK.

“We definitely want to have programs that represent what the diversity of this city looks like,” she said. “In particular, this area of South Philadelphia has become so much more diverse over the years, so you really have all populations represented here.”

Close to 60 of PHLpreK sites are run by women or minorities, including Little Learners Literacy Academy, which opened its doors in 2016.

Teaching aid Maria Costabile guides her students through arts and crafts Little Learners Academy on Porter Street. The school is one of more than 80 of the city’s PHLpreK sites — a product of the Philadelphia Beverage Tax. (GRACE MAIORANO/South Philly Review)

“We feel the diversity in the program — it actually speaks to the community, diversity in the community,” said Tanisha Aiken-Woods, owner of the center. “And I think, with us being a part of the community, everything is embedded when it comes to diversity. … Having us here in the heart of this community that’s well established, that’s been here for years — it speaks volumes.”

Among the 20 students in the school-year classroom, five native languages are spoken. Aiken-Woods says parents strictly fluent in foreign languages have even picked up on English through their children’s learning of the literacy curriculum.

She describes the diversity in the academy as normalcy, with the children exposed to different family structures and socioeconomic statuses.

More than 80 percent of the 2,000 students currently enrolled are from families with household incomes at or below 200 percent of the federal poverty level, according to the city’s five-year plan.

“If we ever believe that we’re going to raise our children out of poverty, we have to do this,” Kenney said, citing that if children aren’t reading on grade level by third or fourth grades, the odds of them graduating high school are severely diminished.

There are no income requirements for PHLpreK. Students must simply be 3 or 4 years old by Sept. 1 and a resident of Philadelphia. In South Philly alone, there are seven PHLpreK locations. Some of these include family-based providers.

“You want to be able to have educational access in every community, especially in South Philadelphia in the areas where — this neighborhood is very diverse and economically challenged in some ways,” Squilla said. “And, so, it’s necessary to get educational opportunities to the people of the district and to the region, and to really show them they get to step up early in the learning process.”