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The John S. and James L. Knight Foundation's Community Partners Program is working to improve the quality of life in 26 communities around the country where the Knight brothers owned newspapers. This article describes the foundation's early literacy initiative in Philadelphia and its ongoing evaluation.

Many low-income urban children start school so far behind that they never catch up. Concerned by this lack of school readiness, Knight Foundation responded by focusing its grantmaking, in 12 of its 26 communities, on early childhood. In Philadelphia, Knight Foundation's local Community Advisory Committee—a group of community, business, and nonprofit leaders who help define funding priorities that fit within the foundation's mission and strategically address issues of community concern—identified early literacy as the foundation's local 5-year funding priority.

The strategy was informed by early childhood research that shows high quality early education programs help improve academic outcomes for low-income children. Studies show that economically disadvantaged children in Philadelphia have relatively high rates of participation in early care and education programs and kindergarten, yet one-third to one-half start school without the linguistic, cognitive, or social skills they need to succeed academically.

Program Description
In September 2003 Knight Foundation made a $2.5 million grant to the United Way of Southeastern Pennsylvania to implement Early to Read (E2R), a 4-year initiative designed to support the emergent literacy of at-risk, low-income children; to provide family literacy support to parents; and to increase and improve emergent literacy teaching practices in 15 child care sites in two targeted neighborhoods in Philadelphia. The initiative builds on United Way's larger Early to Learn: Partners for School Readiness (E2L), an initiative that aims to improve the quality and integration of early child care and education, health care, and parenting.

Programs participating in E2R receive services through E2L, including money, quality monitoring by independent evaluators, technical assistance, and mentoring support. Staff members also receive literacy coaching, take coursework at Saint Joseph's University, and earn bonus incentives for academic accomplishments. E2R also incorporates the Raising a Reader program to increase school readiness by improving home literacy practices.

Program Evaluation
The Child Development Laboratory in the Department of Psychology at Saint Joseph's University is conducting the evaluation of the early care and education component of E2L (Preschool Plus) and the Knight-funded literacy add-on, E2R. The first evaluation goal is to describe the different patterns of service delivery within E2R and how these differ from what is offered through E2L. Through case study methodology the evaluation will examine the implementation of E2R in two sites and document the factors that promote successful implementation and those that pose challenges to service delivery, particularly in service integration.

A second evaluation goal is to assess the impact E2R has on classroom environments, children's language development, and early childhood educators' characteristics and behaviors. Specifically, the evaluation will examine the following:

  • Whether enrolling early childhood educators in college courses has an impact on their teaching credentials, retention rates, and classroom practices regarding emergent literacy
  • Whether the college coursework and meetings with literacy coaches and mentors affect the quality of the literacy environment provided in early childhood classrooms
  • Whether the expected improvements in teacher characteristics, behaviors, and classroom environments have an impact on young children's emergent literacy (e.g., print awareness, alphabet knowledge, letter-sound knowledge, and writing skills)

Using a between-group comparison, the evaluation will investigate whether the E2R program provides benefits that demonstrate a high quality classroom literacy environment above and beyond that of E2L. The evaluation will examine the issue of dosage using a within-group comparison to investigate whether further participation in the E2R program beyond the first year leads to subsequent improvements. Finally, children's performance on norm-referenced tests will be used to compare their rate of change with national samples and determine whether the progress observed in the sample matches or exceeds that which would be expected by normal development.

The 6-year evaluation is in its third year. The first year was spent planning and is being followed by 4 years of data collection and 1 year of data analysis and writing. To date, the evaluation team has collected initial baseline data for all E2L classrooms, including demographic and professional characteristics of directors and teachers, and documentation from technical assistance agencies concerning the needs and improvement goals for each program. The team has conducted three assessments of classroom quality; final results are due in 2008. Annual interim reports will be shared with the implementing partners and used for program improvement.

Julie K. Kohler, Ph.D.
Content Program Officer
Tel: 305-908-2638

Julie E. Tarr, Ed.D.
Community Liaison
Program Officer
Tel: 908-928-0117

John S. and James L. Knight Foundation
200 S. Biscayne Blvd.,
Suite 3300
Miami, FL 33131

Elizabeth Jaeger, Ph.D.
Assistant Professor
Department of Psychology

Randi Strosberg Berry, Ph.D.
Research Associate
Child Development Laboratory

Saint Joseph's University
5600 City Avenue
Philadelphia, PA 19131

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