Taka Agawa

First and foremost, I am very proud to be amongst front-line, essential care providers who understand and act on the importance of early care and education (ECE). For over two years, the FELS staff’s commitment and discipline throughout COVID-19 have been critical to maintaining continuity of care for our children. Despite public fears and risks, our staff shows up day in and day out. They show up to care, nurture, protect, teach, and run our centers to provide high-quality ECE. It is in times of crisis that society recognizes its heroes.

Now, I refuse to sit here at my desk and sugarcoat the reality. ‘Teachers are undervalued’ and ‘childcare costs too much’ have been truths for many years now. Even before COVID-19, the ECE industry was struggling. The pandemic only aggravated the issues we now plainly see.

The other irrefutable truth is that childcare is necessary because our children are our future. High-quality ECE needs to sustainably exist in every community, not just for those who can afford the high costs. More directly, providing equitable access to high-quality ECE addresses opportunity disparity at its earliest stages.

I’m here to tell you that FELS is answering that need.

We look to uplift our staff and help more children thrive by elevating FELS from a high-quality provider to the highest quality provider across the Greater Philadelphia area. This enhancement will not only improve the FELS experience for our children, families, and our staff, but it will also unlock new revenue optimization strategies to support our organization.

To overcome the unique challenges facing ECE and realize these ambitions, FELS will:

  • call on all our staff to continue providing vital ECE services,
  • solicit honest feedback on pilot programs from all those involved,
  • ask partners to collaborate openly toward a common goal, and
  • invite donors to consider strategic and impactful contributions.

In parallel with stabilizing FELS post-COVID, we must start building for the future. Here are some of the exciting efforts underway:

Staffing:

  • Hiring to alleviate overworking
    • We understand that understaffing leads to our current staff being stretched thin and overstressed. We are refining our recruitment process with Special Projects Manager Kelly Levin to make it more efficient. We are also improving onboarding to ensure new staff members are prepared for the job ahead.
  • Positive work culture to spark joy at work
    • With a Director of Programs and Assistant Director of Programs that were internally promoted to the Central Team, we are working to develop more practical ways to improve the work culture at our centers.
    • A key component of creating a positive work is more effective communication
  • Professional Development to reinforce our staff
    • We understand that teachers want to level up and become better. We want to encourage growth and provide training for teachers to reach their full potential.
  • Career Pathways to build hope
    • We want ECE staff to recognize that our industry offers them more than a job – it can offer them a career. We not only want to help teachers recognize this, but with effective professional development, we can help realize the upward progression.

Programming:

  • Better quality with Ed Tech
    • By utilizing existing technology in the ECE space, we can efficiently empower teachers to teach and administrators to administrate.
  • Efficient use of budget for better programing
    • Purposeful and collaborative programming with the highest quality partners will allow us to offer the best experience for our children and families.
  • Inclusive by design to help maintain productive classrooms
    • The rise in the number of children with special needs is well established. To maintain productive ECE and elementary school classrooms, we need inclusive classrooms to help our children prepare to be lifelong learners alongside their peers. We need to embrace this reality to address it appropriately.

Providing Equitable Access to High-Quality ECE:

  • Subsidized Care and Education
    • Pre-K Counts: Pennsylvania’s State-funded program provides quality pre-kindergarten to eligible children in Pennsylvania.
    • Head Start: Federally funded program provides quality pre-kindergarten to eligible children in Pennsylvania.
    • Child Care Works: state and federally subsidized child care program helps low-income families pay their childcare fees
  • Scholarships
    • When a family earns a dollar more than eligible income guidelines, the family moves from free or heavily subsidized tuition to a private pay tuition rate. We think this is unfair and displaces many hard-working families.
    • FELS stands out amongst its peers by awarding donor-funded sliding-scale scholarships to families. These unique ECE scholarships are offered by only 35 out of the 1300+ childcare centers in Philadelphia (including our Philadelphia-based FELS centers)
    • FELS knows that building a sustainable funding source for scholarships will be a crucial component of continuing to provide the highest quality early care and education to the communities that need it.

Although these transformations may take some time, they will be worth the effort.

Many organizations aspire to change the world, but very few in ECE have all the elements required: talent, resources, and grit. FELS staff have proven, time and time again, that we have all three in abundance. As the new CEO, I couldn’t have asked for a better foundation.

As a parent of four who has and continues to rely on ECE educators, it is my turn to fight for this industry. You have my commitment that we will improve the lives of our FELS staff and help more children than we do today.

Let’s change the world.

No cap,
Taka

The success of our efforts now will translate into a brighter and more equitable future for tomorrow, with our future leaders striving to be strong, independent, and well-prepared for the future. We depend on the generous support of individuals, foundations, and corporations to provide excellence in early care and education. By playing a critical role with Federation Early Learning Services, you are helping children from all walks of life experience the best that early care and education offer. Thank you for being our partner in their journey as a supporter of FELS.

Federation Early Learning Services is sincerely grateful to all individuals and entities who support our mission.  We would like to highlight several recent grants that will enhance our programs and facilities to benefit the children who call FELS home:

  • 2022 American Academy of Dermatology’s (AAD) Shade Structure Program – install a UV-protective shade structure for our Paley Early Learning Center.  This structure will support educational efforts and provide a much-needed shade area, so all children are afforded the opportunity to be protected while outdoors. Many thanks to Dermatology Partners for sponsoring our application.
  • Jewish Emergency Preparedness Program (JEPP) – bring a holistic approach to safety and security, so we are more prepared for emergencies and readiness in our daily lives to react more strategically in an emergency incident and recover much more quickly.
  • City of Philadelphia: Child Care Facilities Fund – the replacement of our current lights from fluorescent to LED is a priority as it will improve our children’s health and productivity at Paley Early Learning Center. Utilizing LED lighting properly will boost focus, assist in concentration and relaxation, and improve overall mood and behavior.
  • COVID-19 Vaccine Outreach Grant Program through PA’s Department of Community and Economic Development – engage and provide proactive community outreach regarding the COVID-19 vaccination.

 

Join Us for FELStival

Our inaugural spring FELStival is coming together nicely with more than 51 vendors scheduled for Sunday,  June 12, at Paley ELC from 12pm – 6pm.  This event is free to the public. The FELStival will bring together delicious food truck vendors, local artisans selling a range of unique items, including handmade pottery, vintage jewelry, and much more. This event will be a family friendly experience with children’s activities and crafts.  For more information about the FELStival or to donate please contact David B. Reinfeld, Director of Development at dreinfeld@felskids.org or at 215-676-7550 x 108 or visit https://felskids.org/felstival-2022/

Support Equitable Education

We believe in providing the highest quality care to all children. But we need your help. FELS depends on the generous support of individuals and entities so that we may continue to provide excellence in early child care and education to all of the children in our centers. By choosing to support FELS today, 80% of your donation will go directly towards providing scholarships for our children and 20% will support the operations of FELS.

What an exciting year it has been for FELS centers and programming! As we quickly approach the end of the school year, I wanted to take this time to reflect on the accomplishments thus far throughout our centers.

As of May 2022, FELS is so proud to serve 510 children across our five centers. This accomplishment is a welcome progression coming on the heels of the COVID-19 pandemic. Most recently, our K’tonton Early Learning Center in Delaware County reopened its Young Toddlers Room in April and is set to reopen its Infant Room this week! We are so excited to welcome new and returning children into these rooms.

This year’s focus has been on quality. Two of our centers received high scores on the NAEYC re-accreditation portfolios and four centers earned four stars in the Keystone STARS program, both accreditations reflecting the high standards expected in a FELS center. We are confident that the centers awaiting their accreditation and stars designations will earn the same.

As we continue to look at quality, considerations are being made in curriculum, parent engagement, classroom environments, facilities and streamlining and automating processes throughout the centers. One important area is professional development. We have several staff who are pursuing master’s degrees and bachelor’s/associate degrees. This year had six staff earn a CDA, Child Development Associate, the most widely known and valued credential in early childhood education. In order to assist staff in meeting their educational goals we have partnered with First Up this summer to pilot the Learn and Earn Program. This program is the result of a partnership between FELS, First Up, and local college supports that will allow eligible teachers to obtain an associates or bachelor’s degree in ECE for free.

Another focus in our program area has been finding ways to appropriately serve the influx of children with special needs. Many children are coming to us with an Autism Spectrum Diagnosis. Other children display challenging behaviors, forcing us to look at ways to address their needs, as well as those of the other children in the class, to ensure a safe classroom environment for all. We partnered with Thrive Therapy to pilot a program at Lassin ELC. A co-teaching approach was implemented whereby FELS teachers and assistant teachers work alongside a BSC (Behavior Specialist Consultant) from Thrive Therapy. The benefits of this co-teaching model have been endless. First, we have been able to provide a truly inclusive setting for all the children in need of child care. Secondly, we have been able to utilize Thrive Therapy for professional development for our staff, an ongoing initiative of FELS.

To say the least, it is an exciting time to be apart of FELS and the team.

We are so excited about the future of our organization with our incredible staff. As a former pre-k teacher, I know both the joys and challenges that our teachers are experiencing. It is an honor for me to advocate for them as they put their heart and soul into some of the most important work on the planet – our children! I want to update you on staffing in our centers and the professional development efforts to support our staff.

Staffing in Our Centers

It has been one year since I jumped into the recruitment space at Federation Early Learning Services (FELS), and it has been a challenge! Initially, I would screen 60-70 candidates to be lucky enough to make one hire, and most scheduled interviews ended in a no-call/no-show. I am happy to report that we have turned the corner in the number of candidates applying, and we are converting more qualified applicants into hired staff.

We have hired six teachers/classroom assistants in the past four weeks, which has helped stabilize our DelCo centers – Kehillah and K’tonton Early Learning Centers – which have seen the most post-pandemic staffing struggles. In April, we were very excited to participate in our first in-person career fair in over two years! The time spent at Delaware County Community College was well worth it as we were able to speak with two dozen students, schedule two on-the-spot interviews, and just this week hire a Classroom Assistant for our Kehillah ELC!

 

Professional Development

A focus of ours this year has been to develop our staff and improve their FELS experience. One way in which we support our incredible employees is through internal promotions. I would like to highlight a few of them here.

We were excited to welcome Sandy McDonald into the Director of Programs role earlier this year after having her serve previously as a Center Director for both Lassin and Paley ELCs. Julie Gilbert, who started as a teacher at FELS, has recently been promoted from Compliance Administrator to Assistant Director of Programs. Former Head Start Lead Teacher Mireshia Toro has accepted the role of Assistant Director at Gutman ELC. Jennifer Bailey started at FELS as Gutman ELC’s Assistant Director and is now the Center Director. Ilham Ali has moved from serving as an Assistant Teacher at Paley ELC to our School Age and Camp Woodlight Supervisor. And last, but certainly not least, former Head Start Assistant Teacher Ticey Cooper has taken on the role of Lassin ELC’s Operations Administrator. It is our hope that more of our staff will see their career, not just their job, at FELS.

In addition to our internal promotions, I am very proud to talk about two of the programs we are kicking off to help benefit our fantastic teaching staff and bring more teachers into our industry.

Learn and Earn – The Learn and Earn program results from a partnership between FELS, First Up, and local college supports through the Community College of Philadelphia, Delaware County Community College, and Arcadia University. This program will allow current FELS teaching staff to obtain an associates or bachelor’s Degree in ECE for free. Funding for this program is generously provided through the Teacher Education And Compensation Helps (T.E.A.C.H.) and Public Health Management Corporation (PHMC).

Educator in Training – Educator in Training is an inhouse apprenticeship program at FELS designed to recruit new talent into the organization. This program provides on-the-job training opportunities for new candidates interested in entering the ECE field, but who fall short of the required 2500 experience hours. Candidates will be hired for full-time positions with eligibility for benefits, and, once a candidate reaches the 2500 hours requirement, they will be considered for an Assistant Teacher position.

We are also hopeful that in strengthening the FELS work culture to include educational supports, leadership opportunities, and career pathways for our teachers, that we will become the place that ECE teachers WANT to work for and build a career!