Nonprofit Gives Underserved Children Head Start

FARRELL, Pa. – Calette Robinson has held the position of administrative assistant at Zion Education Center Inc. in Farrell, Pa., seven months. She’s almost settled in.

Her first day was in February. “It was less than a month and then we were shut down,” she says with a laugh. “With COVID, everything was crazy.”

Like most businesses in the early part of the year, Robinson and the staff at Zion had to rethink how they could adapt to serve their clients. The challenge was even more urgent because Zion’s clients are underserved children.

Additional staff was brought on to help students with remote learning. For families of preschool students who wished to engage in remote learning, iPads were purchased and distributed.

Finally, safety protocols, such as temperature checks and health screenings, were put in place to ensure the safety of staff and students on site. “One of the biggest things is the safety precautions. You can’t just walk in the door,” Robinson says.

Still, the transition proceeded “smoother than expected,” she says.

Perhaps that’s because Zion is operated by a woman used to adapting to meet the needs of children. What is today a nonprofit center that oversees 45 children began, in 1995, as a for-profit operation that oversaw six children and was operated in the home of its founder, April Torrence.

In 2015, budget limitations drove Torrence to convert Zion into a nonprofit, allowing her to pursue grants previously unavailable.

In 2018, the center moved to 602 Roemer Blvd. so it could serve more children. “We don’t want children to get caught up in what they see around them 24/7,” Torrence says. “We want them to be able to see beyond this area.”

Today Zion has an annual budget of $500,000, about $10,000 per student, Torrence says.

The goal of the nonprofit is to help disadvantaged families and empower children through a commitment to education. “Achievement gaps are real,” Torrence says.

As an example, she points to studies that show students who aren’t skilled readers by the third grade are four times more likely to not graduate from high school.

Torrence says reading is the foundation for all future learning. “If they can’t grasp the concept of reading and understanding what they’re reading, then it’s impossible to understand math problems,” she says.

To help her students hit those milestones, Zion teaches reading to all students in pre-K through third grade. Afterward, students are taught to use their reading skills.

“From pre-K to third grade, they learn reading. After third grade they’re reading to learn,” Torrence says.

Every morning the pre-K students begin with a morning meeting where they find out what the day’s theme will be before proceeding with their lessons.

“Say we’re looking at buildings and construction for our theme. There would be a lot of emphasis placed in the block area,” Torrence says.

In addition to the block area, there is also a science center, library and math area. All aspects of the curriculum are aligned with the Pennsylvania early learning standards, which is a big help when children make the transition from preschool to kindergarten.

“I definitely could not have taught him everything he learned from them,” Monica Rose says of her son Gavin.

Gavin, who today is 15, spent about eight hours per day at Zion from the time he was 7 months old to age 5.

As a police officer working long hours in Farrell, Rose says having somewhere to take her son to both watch him and prepare him for school was a huge help.

By the time Gavin was old enough to enter kindergarten, “He was kind of advanced,” she says.

The head start has paid dividends as his education progresses. “I believe it’s because he learned so much while he was at Zion,” Rose says.

For Kathleen Watkins, the biggest help Zion provided was teaching her how to deal with her son Ja’miere, who has severe attention deficit disorder.

Watkins has four children, ages 16 to 5, and all have attended Zion.

“My two children who just graduated were over-prepared for kindergarten. The [teachers] were very impressed when they went to do their interview,” Watkins says.

At Zion, instructors were able to adapt their lessons to help Ja’miere and those steps have helped him to excel in kindergarten, she says.

“He’s very focused now. They showed me ways to help him learn better,” she says. “He’s doing excellent right now.”

The pre-K program is just one way Zion serves Farrell and the surrounding communities.

The nonprofit’s after-school program helps children ages 5 through 13, providing hot meals, additional education and a welcoming environment where they can spend time with their peers.

For high school seniors and college students, the AmeriCorps program is available. It offers a cost-of-living award or money for education in exchange for students volunteering to serve in the classroom.

“The education award is $3,065 for just that particular semester. So it’s a great opportunity,” Torrence says.

Young adults can also return to be a part of the adult food care program, which distributes free dinners during after-school hours.

Torrence says at this time there is adequate funding from grants and the commonwealth of Pennsylvania.”But there is a commitment that we as early-learning providers have to maintain, and that is high-quality education at all times.”

Proof that Zion is living up to that commitment, she says, is the high number of former students who have graduated, had children of their own, and then brought them to learn at Zion.

“I do very little marketing for Zion Education Center, simply because it’s word-of-mouth,” Torrence says.

She points to Robinson, whose son Charles enrolled in the pre-K program in August 2019, while battling a speech impediment.

“He came a long way from the time he started,” Robinson says. “Now when he talks his speech is clearer. He has evolved so much.”

That’s why when Robinson needed somewhere for her two daughters, she didn’t hesitate to bring them to Zion. “They love it,” she says. “Just today they were telling me they couldn’t wait to get back and see one of their teachers.”

And that, Torrence says, shows how the nonprofit is having a positive effect on the families it serves. “The loudest success you can hear is when a parent brings their child back and says, ‘We wouldn’t think of taking them anywhere else.’ ” 

Pictured above: April Torrence established her learning center in 1995 as a home-based business.