“Let me start by saying it was never my intention to open a school,” says Barbara Chavous-Pennock, CEO of Somerset Academy Early Learning Center in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Opening with this statement, she’s about to tell an incredible journey of never giving up and of always persevering—not even for herself, but for the larger picture of those she so eagerly wanted to help.
“We had so many obstacles and if it were not for the grace of God, there’s no way possible we would still be here, she shares.”
Chavous-Pennock’s training began in social work and from there, she became involved with the Special Olympics community.
“I was Director of Special Olympics for Philadelphia, then was made their Director of Urban Initiatives,” she says. “I was doing Unified Sports throughout schools in Philadelphia, and I thought I’d do that for a little bit.”
After returning home to take care of her mother while she was ill, Chavous-Pennock says she initially became involved with Somerset Academy because a local charter school was closing.
“Because I had been in business and done these kinds of things—organizational development, program development, working with legislators and government around quality-of-life issues—they asked if I would help them open this school,” she says.
Little did she know that she was signing on to the next chapter of her life’s work and commitment to the Philadelphia community.
She added, “At the time I knew nothing about early childhood education. [I’d] always been involved in quality-of-life [advocacy] issues for individuals of different persuasions: ex-offenders, adjudicated delinquents, seniors, drug and alcohol addiction. Various audiences, but not early childhood education.”
Once Chavous-Pennock began to understand the various glaring insufficiencies and shortcomings of the education system—particularly where it concerned serving underprivileged communities—rather than pull back, she charged forward in the name of serving children and their families.
It was an incredibly rocky road for the first few years.
She explains, “It took us about a year to get ourselves up and going. I was thrilled because we had a partnership with Nationality Services Center. We started by serving immigrant children and families which was just a phenomenal opportunity for us. That was around October 2015 that we really had all of our licensing and everything in order. And then in December of 2015, we were told that the building was being sold.”
Setbacks would continue to be the theme for Somerset Academy, but when they were open they were determined to make it work. After finding a new space Chavous-Pennock says she thought, “it’ll be easy to get [the new space] licensed because it had been a school, we can start with six children…at least we can be working, we can keep rolling. Little did I know that would not be the case. We moved in on February 28th, on March 3rd, they told us they were evicting us.”
Having had two separate locations taken away, Chavous-Pennock jokes, “I want to say that a sane person would have probably stopped!” Luckily, however, she was able to find and move into the space Somerset Academy calls home today on Philadelphia’s West Girard Avenue.
After the location was finally settled, however, roadblocks kept coming for Chavous-Pennock. Around the time they finally moved into this space, she says, “Our current mayor, Mayor Kenney [announced] that he’s going to have a Universal Pre-K program for the city of Philadelphia. I write to be a provider for that program, and by the grace of God, we were approved for 60 slots. Finally!”
But, once Somerset Academy was finally ready to open in April of that year, Chavous-Pennock was told that there were no children to fill the 60 slots she had been approved for.
She says, “I don’t know if it’s stubbornness, [but] I have a tremendous amount of faith. Quitting never entered my mind. It was in 2016, 2017 and I began to say, ‘Okay, how can we make this happen?’”
Where so many would take these plentiful setbacks as a sign to explore a different career path, Chavous-Pennock knew that these setbacks were actually precisely why the answer to her question was to simply just keep going—the children and their families need centers like Somerset. It was then that she began to really expand her pool of resources.
She reached out to someone she’d admired as being renowned for her work in early childhood education, but the response ended up being incredibly disappointing. To Chavous-Pennock the colleague responded, “There’s no reason for us to meet. The only thing I can tell you is that it is hard work.”
Understandably frustrated, Chavous-Pennock says, “It was probably that stubbornness that said you would treat another human being—much less a professional—who wants to provide a service to children and families that need this service—and if that’s the epitome that this industry can provide for us, then clearly I need to be in this industry.”
This clarity is when Chavous-Pennock began looking into organizations such as ICIC and completed the Inner City Capital Connections (ICCC) program in 2019.
“[ICCC] was a turning point for us. I thought how foolish of me not to have looked at those financials. And since that time to now, I’ve done everything I can to not just focus on the needs of children or staff or parents, but to actually know what’s required for a person to have a solid business.”
Combining the business skills she learned with her already immense passion for the field, Chavous-Pennock and her team became unstoppable. This came from seizing all tangible ways to be involved with the community, and therefore the community would place a lot of trust with them to serve their children. She says, “Part of what we do is not just what is a benefit to the child in the classroom sitting in that chair, but also to support our families, to support our parents.”
She asked herself, “Using the school as the vehicle, how can we impact to really be transformative for all those lives that we touch? And to do it in a way that education is a catalyst for our children that will last them for the rest of their lives?”
Somerset Academy creates Thanksgiving baskets to feed anyone who needs for the holiday, toy drives during the December holiday season, as well as being a fearless resource during the most tumultuous time we have ever known, the COVID-19 pandemic.
From March 2020 until now, Somerset Academy never closed to its students and families. Food for those struggling was always available, as well as being deemed an essential business to provide those struggling with job opportunities, as well as even partnering with a local pharmacy to facilitate a vaccination drive once it became accessible.
It’s been an incredibly winding road, but Chavous-Pennock just keeps on looking forward.
“I take great pride in being able to say, ‘I am a businesswoman.’ I am very much a businesswoman who wants to do well as a businesswoman while she’s doing good for those that she services.”
Barbara Chavous-Pennock’s determination to succeed in providing for those that she services has resulted in a successful business in Somerset Academy – it has evolved to become one of the nation’s 100 fastest-growing businesses in an under-resourced community. On Thursday, December 9th, Chavous-Pennock’s success will be recognized with an Inner City 100 (IC100) award. Join us at our Annual Conference for the reveal of 2021’s IC100 winners and to find out where Somerset Academy ranks on the list!
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