In an effort to help make Philadelphia's museums and other cultural organizations more accessible to families, the William Penn Foundation is spending nearly $2 million to take arts, science, and literacy programs to low-income neighborhoods, officials announced Wednesday.

The two-year program will reach 1,800 children, pairing institutions with schools, day care centers, homeless shelters, and city recreation centers. It aims to build literacy skills in informal settings, giving children opportunities to access resources that might not be available to them otherwise.

Officials announced the effort at Mander Recreation Center in North Philadelphia, one of the sites for the program. While dignitaries made speeches outside, a group of preschoolers got down to business inside: working with professionals from the Barnes Foundation, dipping Q-Tips into paint, and decorating letter-B worksheets in a pointillist art activity inspired by Georges Seurat's Port of Honfleur.

"It's pretty," Suhaylah Gilliland, 4, said of the 19th century French artist's work.

Suhaylah Gilliland, 4, in the pre-K program at Community Concerns No. 13, shows off her technique after instruction by Barnes Foundation staff at Mander Recreation Center.
CLEM MURRAY / Staff Photographer
Suhaylah Gilliland, 4, in the pre-K program at Community Concerns No. 13, shows off her technique after instruction by Barnes Foundation staff at Mander Recreation Center.

The program dovetails with a citywide campaign to get all Philadelphia children reading on grade level by fourth grade. (Just 40 percent of city fourth graders do so now.) It aims to reinforce early learning skills in settings children are comfortable with, and to involve adults in helping to reinforce the skills at home.

The work — from the Center for Aquatic Sciences at Adventure Aquarium's partnership with the Indochinese American Council in Logan and Olney to the Franklin Institute's work with Children's Village, an early childhood center in Chinatown — has the potential to "create a lasting impact" on the lives of children who cannot access cultural resources because of issues with finances or transportation, said Kathryn Ott Lovell, the city's commissioner of parks and recreation.

Kathryn Ott Lovell, commissioner of parks and recreation, announced an initiative to partner Philadelphia-area museums and other cultural institutions with community resources to offer in-neighborhood learning opportunities for Philadelphia residents who cannot have cultural experiences in the museums themselves.
CLEM MURRAY / Staff Photographer
Kathryn Ott Lovell, commissioner of parks and recreation, announced an initiative to partner Philadelphia-area museums and other cultural institutions with community resources to offer in-neighborhood learning opportunities for Philadelphia residents who cannot have cultural experiences in the museums themselves.

The programs will be free to families.

"All children deserve to learn regardless of zip code, family situation, or other circumstances," said Janet Haas, board chair of the William Penn Foundation.

Salahudin Muhammad grew up in Strawberry Mansion going to after-school programs at Mander, at 33rd and Diamond Streets; for years, he sent his five children to programs there. The new programming — Mander will get an urban-watershed program for children ages 3 to 5 run by the Fairmount Waterworks as a result of the William Penn grant — will be welcome, he said.

"Coming to Mander was pretty much a safe haven and a big help to the single parents in this neighborhood," Muhammad said.

While growing up in South Philadelphia, Mayor Kenney didn't visit the Philadelphia Museum of Art until he was a freshman in high school, the same year he saw his first modern dance performance — Judith Jamison performing solo for the Alvin Ailey Dance Company at the Walnut Street Theatre.

Experiences like that can be transformative, the mayor said.

"It changes you," Kenney said. "It changes how you look at life. It changes how you think about things. It opened up my eyes and ears and heart."

Kit Matthew, executive director of the U.S. Institute for Museum and Library Services, said the program could become a model for other cities and institutions.

"We need," she said, "to work outside our walls. Community outreach needs to be front and center."