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Early Learning Gets Physical

In inner-city Philadelphia, preschool centers pop up everywhere, tucked into strip malls and former rowhomes, stores and laundromats. Bright colors and cheery facades often hide spaces within that are not safe and stimulating places. There are city and state requirements for education, but few standards that address design quality of early childhood education spaces. Leslie Spina, executive director at Kinder Academy, Inc., has always understood that the physical environment has an enduring impact on a child’s developmental progress, safety and health. Spina worked with CICADA Architecture / Planning to design several new Kinder Academy facilities in Northeast Philadelphia that are raising the bar for Philadelphia’s early learning centers. Kinder Academy’s five branches serve low-income communities in Northeast Philadelphia, and 90 percent of their children receive tuition subsidies.

 

Help Is on the Way

Spina’s quest to improve the quality of Kinder Academy’s infant, toddler and preschool care programs and the facilities that house them just got a whole lot more possible, thanks to the Fund for Quality. Launched in 2014, the Fund for Quality is a partnership between the Reinvestment Fund and the Public Health Management Corporation, with funding support from the William Penn Foundation and Vanguard Strong Start for Kids; its primary goal is to expand access to high-quality early childhood education for low-income Philadelphia families. In 2016, the William Penn Foundation vastly boosted the impact of the Fund with a $15 million grant. Kinder Academy has been a multi-year recipient of some of those funds.

 

From Shoe Store to Quality Childcare Center

The first Kinder Academy built with help from the Fund for Quality started with the former Phil’s Family Shoe Store in Northeast Philly’s Castor section. In transforming this two-story brick building, the design team was guided by the Fund’s objectives to encourage “a child’s social, physical, intellectual, creative, cultural and emotional development through play and learning in a healthy, stimulating, aesthetically pleasing environment.” Interiors were gutted to create new, spacious rooms that are rectangular and open, leaving no hidden nooks and crannies where children can’t be seen or supervised. The color palette was toned down from typical, bright Crayola hues to muted, calming greens and blues that mimic the sky, grass and natural world. Sliding barn doors in classrooms add flexibility to the room layout, closed for smaller groups and open to keep larger groups together, like the older kids who come for after-school care.  

 

Happy Staff Makes Happy Children

One of Spina’s dreams was to make life easier, not just for the children, but also for the staff. She explains, “If the caretakers are less stressed out and exhausted, the kids will get better treatment. Small details, like sinks and restrooms, go a long way toward a more content staff.” With help from the Fund for Quality, bathrooms were designed into each classroom so caretakers don’t have to constantly usher little ones back and forth down the hallways. There are also three sinks in each classroom, two at toddler height and one for adults who no longer have to bend down to tiny, low sinks all day. The sinks are also used as a clever tactic to get parents more involved inside the classroom with a morning, drop-off ritual of parents helping kids wash their hands before class starts.

 

Connections to Nature

Connections to the natural world are crucial for the development of very young children. Because this Kinder Academy is in the heart of a Northeast Philly retail strip, exposing kids to nature required some creativity. To usher in light and views to the outside, the shoe store’s showroom windows were kept in place. New windows were added on the previously windowless sides, positioned to the height of an average two-year-old. In the back, what was previously a parking lot for the shoe store was later transformed into a playground. Spina adds, “With planting beds, a huge sandbox, mud kitchen and trike track, we are ensuring that the children have outdoor classroom and learning experiences.”

 

Making It Sustainable

CICADA’s architects have long been at the forefront of environmentally friendly design, so they were attuned to the Design Guide’s recommendations for sustainability, for the health of the children AND the environment. Luxury Vinyl-Plank floors look more upscale and need less maintenance than cheaper VCT that has to be stripped and waxed. Other sustainable touches include well-insulated walls, LED lighting with automatic shut-off, and use of low-VOC materials and finishes. Some of these “luxury” items would not have been possible without the Fund for Quality. Spina says, “We also upgraded the HVAC system to handle fresh air, as opposed to recirculated air, improving the air quality for all the children, but especially those with asthma.”

 

With better quality building blocks assembled into a healthier and safer environment for kids and caretakers, Kinder Academy has become a role model for excellence, in urban settings and beyond. 

 

Additional: 

NBC10 Feature: Partnership Brings Quality Early-Childhood Education to Northeast Philadelphia Neighborhood (VIDEO)