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Wonderspring CEO Zakiyyah Boone on Educating Amid the Pandemic

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Photo by Tessa Marie Images

The leader of the Narberth-based company strives to make a positive impact on childhood education during a challenging time.

Zakiyyah Boone was already working as Wonderspring Early Education’s chief programming officer when COVID-19 closed down operations between last March and June. A month later, she took over as CEO. “In education, you better have an impact on children—a positive impact,” she says. “You can have any title you want behind your name, but if you didn’t make sure your kids learned ABC …”

From its Narberth headquarters, Wonderspring serves upwards of 1,000 children. “I’ve had to figure out how the organization itself survives a pandemic,” Boone says. “I’m responsible, completely responsible.”

With the childcare industry at a pandemic-induced crossroads, Boone is relentless about doing the right thing for kids. She has to be. The one-size-fits-all status quo is no longer possible. Thanks to COVID’s prolonged stay-at-home shift, there’s less demand for the services provided by Wonderspring’s five centers and five additional sites for before- and after-school care. The numbers bear that out: Enrollment has been cut in half.

Still, Boone sees enormous potential in Wonderspring’s new location in West Philadelphia, a four-story LEED-certified building that’s a residential, community health and retail hub. At 12,000 square feet, Wonderspring’s biggest and only non-freestanding facility can accommodate 120 children. “It was built with the intention of being part of something bigger,” Boone says.

The location is just blocks from where the 45-year-old Boone was raised. The Central High School alum earned her bachelor’s degree in education at Millersville University. She taught kindergarten, then eventually served in two different YMCA administrative positions over 15 years before she was hired at Wonderspring. “I’ve worked with infants through adjudicated youth— with the ultra-rich and the ultra-poor,” she says about a career that included a stint at Chesterbrook Academy. “I’ve seen first-hand the inequities in the education system, and I’ve made it my life’s work to do something about it.”

Along the journey, Boone was vice president of education for the Greater Philadelphia YMCA in Conshohocken. These days, she has far fewer resources and different challenges. Founded in 1964 in Ambler as the Day Care Association of Montgomery County, Wonderspring relies on philanthropic gifts, service fees from private-pay families, and some federal funding for early learning programming for children below the poverty line.

As operations expanded to Norristown, Pottstown, Narberth and Wynnewood, a rebranding was in order. In January 2020, Montgomery Early Learning Centers became Wonderspring. “Wonder is what we do,” says Boone. “Young children learn by exploring their curiosity, and we work to cultivate that curiosity. Then they spring into action when they find a reason to do so. Our classrooms are a safe place to do that.”

The older of Natasha Boston’s two foster children, 5-year-old Breanna, couldn’t count before she started at Wonderspring’s center in Wynnewood. “She’d get to four and start saying eight and other numbers. Last week, her teachers sent me a video of her counting from one to 10.”

Breanna’s teachers are sensitive to her sensory challenges, constantly sending Mom personalized emails about her day. “After one nature walk, her teachers urged me to ask her about ‘the tree.’ She didn’t want to leave the tree and kept hugging the tree,” says Boston, who’s the director of operations for Community Council, a mental health agency in Philadelphia. “What a great moment to share with a parent.”

Wellspring CEO Zakiyyah Boone at the company’s new West Philadelphia facility.

Wellspring CEO Zakiyyah Boone at the company’s new West Philadelphia facility.

As she struggles with the challenges of being a working parent, Boston feels nothing but support from Breanna’s teachers.” COVID has been terrible, but next year Breanna is going to kindergarten and still needs what she needs to be successful,” Boston says. “The pandemic is an easy excuse for many, but they don’t let it get in the way of Breanna getting what she needs.”

Wonderspring’s early learning centers serve infants through 12-year-olds. Its five programs in the Colonial School District are geared for ages 5-12. There’s also a summer camp system. In all, Boone oversees 125 full- and part-time staff members and 12 on her central administration team. “She’s so engaged with us, visits our classrooms, asks what’s on our minds and what we can do better as a company,” says Joedy Johnson, a pre-K teacher at the Narberth center who’s been with the company for 17 years.

During pandemic closures, Boone made sure the staff was paid and had access to counseling. She also registered the entire company for vaccines and plans to honor milestone years of service. The latter was Johnson’s suggestion. “She listens and then takes action,” he says.

With the childcare industry at a pandemic-induced crossroads, Boone is relentless about doing the right thing for kids. She has to be. The one-size-fits-all status quo is no longer possible.

Of Wonderspring’s four core principals— safety, quality, caring and fun—safety has always been the top priority, though never to this extent. “We had to create a different experience that continued to engage children,” says Boone. “It’s changed how the staff interacts. Before, we’d all be in the same room brainstorming. Now, we’re on our own, staying in our own space.”

While closed, the centers offered virtual storytimes and scavenger hunts for families to do at home. None of that was childcare in the Wonderspring sense. “The way kids learn is by interacting with adults, and not all parents are teachers with the skill set to ask the right questions or scaffold learning,” Boone says. “You can’t make parents teachers overnight.”

The pandemic has allowed Wonderspring to rid itself of clutter beyond anything that doesn’t directly impact outcomes. “We’ve leveraged resources,” says Boone.

The most significant changes involve flexibility—everything from the hours of operation and staff scheduling to student grouping and billing. But the constants remain. Childcare needs additional funding, and the training and development of best practices must continue. “Families can’t afford to pay what it truly costs to run a childcare center—more so during a pandemic,” Boone says. “We won’t be back to full enrollment until families are back to work.”

Visit wonderspring.org.