Federation Early Learning Services (FELS) was founded by three independent groups of women who were dedicated to the betterment of their community through services to the most vulnerable.
In the early 1900’s, Jewish women living in South Philadelphia, Strawberry Mansion and North Philadelphia, recognized the need for the daytime care of young children to enable their parents to work and remain economically independent. Children of working parents were provided with supervision, shelter, food and field trips. Consequently, they established the Downtown Hebrew Day Nursery (later renamed the Downtown Children’s Center), the Strawberry Mansion Hebrew Day Nursery and Northern Hebrew Day Nursery (NHDN). Though they were independent programs, they all enrolled children from families impacted by the 3 D’s – Desertion, Death or Divorce. They were primarily staffed by volunteers and fees were nominal.
After years of struggling to keep these agencies alive through weekly social gatherings, door-to-door solicitations and surplus food collections from resident pushcart owners, the group applied to the Federation of Jewish Charities, now the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia, and in 1927 became one of its constituents. This affiliation provided the Centers with a dedicated source of funding. Though the programs were administered under Jewish auspices, enrollment was non-sectarian. Volunteers provided care for the children, though paid staff gradually took their place as employing personnel with educational credentials became increasingly important. The goals of the program as described in their respective mission statements over the years were to provide a safe, nurturing environment for children that met their physical, social and emotional needs while enabling their parents to work.
As Jews moved to Northeast Philadelphia in the 1960s so did the Strawberry Mansion program. The burgeoning demand for child care, with Federation support, led to the opening of the Samuel Paley Day Care Center in 1966. This building was one of a kind – designed specifically for young children. In the early 1970’s, Downtown merged with Samuel Paley to form Federation Day Care Services (FDCS). In 1978, NHDN, experiencing a decrease in its Jewish enrollment, also relocated to the Northeast becoming the Lassin Early Learning Center, a branch of FDCS.
Because our philosophy was rooted in the partnership between parents and the child care center, parent involvement programs were also an integral part of the services. We offered free educational and recreational activities for immediate and extended family members including services such as counseling with Master’s level social workers and discussion groups about work-family balance. Parent Associations were established which sponsored fundraising activities and educational programs. These services exemplified FDCS’ holistic view that caring for the child must also include helping the family function better as a whole.
Continuing our dedication to serving the most vulnerable populations, in 1975 an early intervention program was developed with seed money from the William Penn Foundation. FDCS also provided consultation to early childhood programs in the Delaware Valley to help them more successfully integrate children with special needs into their classrooms. In keeping with best practices, in 1999, the early intervention program was closed and children with special needs were mainstreamed into existing classrooms. Supports were available for children who had difficulty adapting to existing classroom structures.
Recognizing a growing need, in the 1980’s FDCS expanded into Montgomery County, Delaware County and Center City Philadelphia. It simultaneously expanded in the Northeast administering a family day care program, new center based programs serving infants, toddlers and preschool age children and several after school programs in Northeast Philadelphia elementary schools. The 2000’s saw FDCS broadening its connections in the Jewish community by establishing partnerships with synagogues and serving the Orthodox community by opening the Gan Simcha program at the Gutman Early Learning Center in Melrose Park.
Since 1992, FDCS has been operating the grant to manage the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania’s subsidized child care program for residents of NE Philadelphia (Child Care Information Services Northeast – CCIS NE). It has grown over the years to become one of the largest CCIS agencies in Pennsylvania, authorizing subsidized child care for over 15,000 children annually from income eligible families.
In 2003, FDCS changed its name to Federation Early Learning Services (FELS) to stress our organization’s commitment to providing quality early childhood education. Today, FELS plays a leading role in local, state and national child care communities. The quality of our programs is validated by the National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC) and the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania’s Keystone Stars Quality Initiative, two prestigious organizations viewed as the gold standards in the field with rigorous accreditation processes.
While our organization’s shape and focus has expanded over the years, we remain steadfast in our goal to provide the best foundation to the children and families we serve. FELS truly lives its motto, providing the best of everything, from the beginning.