Donna Cooper, formerly a top aide to Gov. Rendell, said she would draw on the many political contacts she has made throughout the region in her new role as head of a leading local youth advocacy agency.

Cooper, 54, of Fishtown, was named executive director of Public Citizens for Children and Youth on Tuesday. She will begin the $115,000-a-year job in January.

Cooper replaces Shelly Yanoff, who announced this year that she would step down after 26 years at the helm.

"I have relationships with Democrats and Republicans in the legislature," said Cooper, who served for eight years as Rendell's secretary of policy and planning, and three years as Philadelphia's deputy mayor for policy and planning. "These are folks that I've gotten to know."

Cooper played a major role in shaping Rendell's health-care and education agendas when he was governor. When she left her state post in 2010, Rendell said his administration was losing its "conscience" and "soul."

She comes to PCCY from the Center for American Progress, a Washington-based educational think tank, where she has been a senior fellow for the last two years.

Cooper has a master's degree in government administration from the University of Pennsylvania Fels Center of Government, and a master's in intercultural management from the School for International Training in Vermont.

Cooper, who grew up in Oreland, was an activist before she went into government. For much of the 1980s, she was involved in the antinuclear movement, and later was in peace and social-justice groups in Philadelphia.

Then she went to work for the City of Philadelphia to oversee programs for youths, seniors, and the homeless. She met then-Mayor Rendell and his chief of staff, David L. Cohen, when she took time off to run the City Council campaign of a friend. Cohen later put her in charge of Rendell's major initiatives.

She also founded Good Schools Pennsylvania, which fought for equitable funding for public education across the state.

"These and other accomplishments convinced us that Donna already has a deep appreciation for, and understanding of, PCCY's values," said a statement from PCCY's board of directors. "She is passionate about our commitment to improve the lives and life opportunities of our region's children."

PCCY is an advocacy and community education nonprofit that has 14 employees and an annual budget of about $1.3 million. In recent years, it expanded its focus from Philadelphia to the region's five counties.

Yanoff said she was pleased with Cooper's selection: "She's smart, she's committed, and she will be excellent."

Over her last two years in Washington and eight in Harrisburg, Cooper said, she saw a lot of good policy work.

"But they can't deliver the public will for the kind of policy changes that are needed to dramatically move the needle on what's good for kids," she said. PCCY can advocate for those changes, she said.

In addition to building on Yanoff's work, Cooper said she also would look to expand access to high-quality early childhood education, and rethink how high schools are geared so that graduates can get into the workforce and make a decent wage more quickly.

She praised Mayor Nutter for his focus on education, including the goals of increasing college completion rates and lowering high school dropout rates, and said it was one of the reasons she wanted the PCCY job.

"The work of PCCY can create the momentum to help accelerate that," she said.