Why is Grace-Trinity UCC Involved in Early Childhood Education?
When I finished my theological education 40 years ago, I remember asking my professors a question: “You have taught us Old Testament, New Testament, History and Theology, but how do we exactly do ministry and what is involved in ministry?” The response that I received from one of them was that “God will provide you the agenda for ministry and God’s Holy Spirit will guide you as to how to do it”. It is true. When we finish Seminary we do not get a blue print for ministry, but God unveils His blue print (agenda) as we serve Him faithfully.
The Agenda that God provided to Grace-Trinity as we began the church in Frankford, Philadelphia, 20 years ago was multi- faceted. This Agenda included soul- searching questions as well as multi- layered challenges. We were confronted by so many questions: will Grace-Trinity be a church only for Indian immigrants? Is it going to be just another church where the congregation gathers for Sunday Worship but disappears during the week? Will it be possible for its Pastoral leadership to be available full- time? What will be its denominational affinity?
The challenges that we faced were many: How could we bring life back into this community? How were we going to restore and maintain an older, dilapidated building? What were we going to do with that sinking corner of the church structure? Would it even be viable project to start a new church in that building? How to confront drug- dealers who capitalized on church premises? Who would clean- up the heap of trash around the church and deal with “issues” related to its reputation as an unattended doggy park? Would its new members be persuaded by our quest to bring worship education, and life into this forgotten community?
Where did the courage to face all these challenges come from, if not from the Lord?
These are all pertinent questions that require answers.
Answering all these questions is beyond the scope of this article. However, it would be possible to address most of the questions if we explain why Grace-Trinity got involved in Early Childhood Education in the first place. What is true of our world is also true of Frankford, Philadelphia – “broken people create broken neighborhoods.”
The symptoms of brokenness are: a) Drug- dealing for easy money and survival; b) Gun- violence and gang- violence; c) teen- pregnancy; d) run- down and dangerous neighborhoods; e) the large number of school drop- outs. When we started the church in 1996, only 48% of the Philadelphia kids graduated from High School. For many, dropping out of school meant falling into a cycle of poverty, unemployment, violence and all other social evils. The police and governmental agencies tried to fix the brokenness of the people and the neighborhood with ‘band-aid’ methods. They waited for the problems to escalate and when it reached a law-and- order situation, they would either incarcerate people or address the problem of teenage pregnancies with “extra-ordinary” pre-natal care in schools and in homes. But they never addressed those issues that were the root-cause of this brokenness; they never asked why and how people are broken; they never tried a preventative measure in their attempts to stop the perpetual brokenness of a community.
Grace-Trinity’s Response to the Brokenness of the People in Philadelphia: High Quality Pre- School and After- School Programs
The drug-dealers who used to gather around the church were all teenagers between the ages of 14 and 19. My heart went out to them. They ought to have been in school but instead they were on the streets; many belonged to local gangs. As we all know, the time between 3 pm and 6 pm is the most vulnerable time for children in the U.S. This is the time when parents are still at work and children return home from schools. For the drug dealers, this is their recruiting time. They recruit children and introduce the taste of money to little children. Once they are hooked onto it they cannot come out. If these children had an option of going to a high- quality and affordable After- School Program until the time their mothers came to pick them up, there would be far less chances of them falling prey to the wrong types of experiences. Therefore, to address this great need, Grace-Trinity started a strong After- School Program. But we soon realized that although an After- School Program was helpful, it would not be enough to serve as a permanent fix. The problem begins much earlier for children, more specifically, the children of disenfranchised working and single mothers. A well- rounded high quality Pre- School could address this need and offer a more permanent fix for their future, and cultivating a holistic approach to education in their formative years, we thought, would solve many of this neighborhood’s social evil. And by God’s proven grace and faithfulness, we continue to believe in this mission.
Why is Early Childhood Education so Important?
Research has shown us that the cognitive skills of children are formed even before a child enters kindergarten. Hence, it is important to create a context where a child develops these skills that are essential for learning (especially reading, math and science) and also the other skills that are important for it to navigate social and emotional issues as early as possible. “There’s an explosion of activity in the first five years of life, more profound than any future years,” says Rhian Evans Allvin, the executive director of the National Association for the Education of Young Children. In her view, “If we can capitalize on that and maximize support and learning opportunities during these years, then we really stand a good chance of setting young children on a successful trajectory.”
High quality early experiences make a difference in children’s lifelong academic and social success
It is important, therefore, to provide high quality education for our children. High quality childhood education would need an appropriate curriculum that keeps in mind a developmentally appropriate scheme of teaching. It is also important to have qualified educators and efficient staff to support the all-round development of children. In all our early education programs we make sure that our services support all aspects of a child’s development, especially nutrition, social comfort and intellectual and psychological well-being. It is our belief that this sound foundation will give them an advantage in later years that would help them to achieve academic success, and also to adjust well in their social and educational settings.
Quality Early Childhood Education helps children develop strong cognitive, social and emotional skills. Research suggests that children who excel by the age of 6 will be successful throughout their lives. They will not end-up in crime or the streets; they will not become parents prematurely, they will not become a burden to the state but rather they will become a blessing to the community and country. We all know that education transforms people for good, and often it is the lack of quality education that creates broken homes and communities.
High Quality Early Childhood Education must be Accessible to All Families
It is not enough to have a high quality Early Childhood Education, but it must be accessible to all families, particularly, the poor. Working parents know exactly how much it costs to send a child to a quality childcare. Access to child care, particularly high quality child care, remains out of reach for many families. Programs outside of K-12 public education have the greatest difficulty in meeting the criteria of good quality, equitable compensation, and affordable access. Unlike K-12 education – a publicly financed system with a relatively stable funding base – most early childhood care and education services operate in a very price- sensitive market financed primarily by fees from families and supplemented by public and private contributions. Many families cannot pay the full cost of quality care, while the ongoing commitment from public and private contributions is seldom guaranteed. For other children, there are insufficient numbers of trained and accessible child care providers who can help support a child’s special needs in hopes of developing the child to their full potential.
Since Grace-Trinity is addressing the needs of the poorest of the poor, those who cannot afford to pay any childcare fees, we had to look for alternate sources for funding. I, along with the Board of Trustees, work hard throughout each year looking for more adequate funding sources. We have developed a network of partners over the years. Our list of partners is growing as we keep growing our ministry. The following are our partners without whose help we would not have reached where we are now:
Childcare Information Services since 1999
United Way of Southeastern Pennsylvania since 2004
PA Pre-K Counts Program, through Philadelphia School District since 2007
Keystone Star Program through PA Keys since 2008
Federal Head Start Program through Philadelphia School District since 2013
Fund for Quality through PHMC since 2015
The goal of all funding agencies is in delivering high quality Early Childhood Education. Since our Centers are the highest quality Centers with Star 4 ratings, we are eligible to qualify for funding from most agencies. But to keep up with the regulations and the requirements of the agencies is not an easy task. But for the sake of the little children who need a secured future, we have to continue to work hard at this. Due to these various funding sources, Grace-Trinity offers free Early Childhood Education to nearly 300 children. The other 200 children receive partial subsidy from the Childcare Information Services. High quality free/low cost Early Childhood Education is Grace-Trinity’s ministerial gift to the children of Philadelphia.
Quality comes from Qualified Teachers and Qualified Early Childhood Professionals
A Key component of quality programs is the quality of teachers. Grace-Trinity is committed to hiring dedicated, compassionate, Christ-Centered, ECE Certified Teachers to teach our children. Our Early Childhood Education teachers are professionals. And their education and experience serves to bring quality into each classroom.
Yet, the recruitment and retention of childcare personnel is extremely difficult. Salary, benefits, and genuine concern/cooperation are the keys to retaining the best teachers for a long time. In our centers, we are blessed to have high quality teachers who are committed to work and to the mission of the greater church. Further, in addition to low turn-over, our teachers are continuously engaged in ongoing professional development trainings throughout the year to make them even better educators.
Through the Children to the Families: the seeds of the Gospel Reach Every Home
The joy of being a pastor is to seed opportunities for sharing the love of Christ with each other and especially with children. Our teachers imitate Christ and his love in their life. Some teachers are there in our centers only because they can speak about Christ without fear. We teach them how to pray. We sing spiritual songs with them. We conduct Vacation Bible School. Bible Stories are shared all year long. (Here, I want to thank Ranjini Chellappa who comes to teach Bible stories in all the Centers throughout the year.) We celebrate Christmas with children and parents. (This year we have even hired a Christian music teacher and a gifted musician – Ms. Sonata Stevenson.)
At the end of the year, when children graduate from our Centers, we give each child a Bible as a graduation gift, thereby allowing Bibles to reach every home. It gives me great joy when some parents witness to the fact that their children do not eat at home without the prayer before meals. Therefore, it is my hope and prayer that the seeds we have planted in the hearts of these little children will germinate in time and yield fruit in due season. We hope that these children will grow in the fear of the Lord and become greater global citizens, doing always the right things in their lives for the glory of God and for the betterment of society.
Therefore, we as a church truly believe that we are the agents of transformation. Education is the right tool to bring lasting transformation to individuals and their community. High quality Pre-School education sets the path of a child for success. As I mentioned earlier, when we started the ministry in 1996 only 48% of Philadelphia children graduated from high school; after 22 years of ministry among local Philadelphians, the number has now grown up to 70%. Progress is being made. We still have a long way to go to reach 100% and see all children graduate from high school and go on to colleges, universities, and further education. This is the goal our ministry continues to aspire for. Yet presently, I am proud to say that we have impacted the community positively and the neighborhood has changed completely. People are buying houses around the church because it has become a safe haven for them to raise children.
The following are Grace-Trinity’s Pre-School Centers serving nearly 500 children in the neighborhood:
Grace-Trinity Academy at 5200 Oxford Avenue, Philadelphia, PA 19124
Grace Neighborhood Academy at 5221 Oxford Avenue, Philadelphia, PA 19124
Bethany Academy at 6545 Rising Sun Avenue, Philadelphia, PA 19111
St. Stephen Day Care and After School Program at 4201 Princeton Avenue, Philadelphia, PA 19135
Soans Christian Academy and After School Program at 7912 Dungan Street, Philadelphia, PA 19111
May God continue to shine his presence through our Pre-School ministries that we may educate future ambassadors for Christ in the years to come.
Rev. Dr. Chandra S. Soans