Shelby County Schools administrators said Tuesday they will use their control of the city’s Head Start program to emphasize reading skills, teacher accountability and kindergarten readiness for low-income Memphis children under five.

The board on Tuesday accepted $33 million in federal and state grants to take over the area’s Head Start program which serves around 5,000 low-income students educational, health and social services throughout the day. That’s 2,000 students more than Shelby County served when it ran the program last year.

“We have a unique opportunity to place high, rigorous standards in our early childhood programs…” Shelby County Schools Superintendent Dorsey Hopson II said Tuesday.

Shelby County Mayor Mark Luttrell declined to apply for the funds this year because he said that most Head Start programs are run by non-profits or people who are experts in working with students, according to the blog Smart City Memphis.
Luttrell also said that too much Head Start money was going to employee benefits and a new provider would be able to put more of that money in the classroom.
Both Porter-Leath, which served 640 students for the county under the previous Head Start contract, and Shelby County Schools submitted proposals to take over the contract which began on July 1.
Some pre-K advocates have suggested that Shelby County Schools will have more incentive to prepare their students for the academic demands of kindergarten than the county did.
School officials say fewer than 30 percent of students in Shelby County enter kindergarten prepared for school. A referendum to expand pre-K last November lost, in part due to criticisms that a sales tax disproportionately falls on the poor and that the revenues might be used to lower the property taxes of the rich.
Around 8,000 children in Shelby County are eligible for Head Start, meaning 3,000 will still go unserved this year, an area of concern for administrators.

Superintendent Hopson said Tuesday that the Head Start grant gives the district the opportunity to place high, rigorous standards in more early childhood programs and select better contractors to oversee some of the classes.

Along with its already-existing voluntary pre-K classes, the district will now offer more than 100 early education classes by this fall, some that will be operated by contracted partners including Kindercare, Kiddie College and Great Adventures. The district also uses money out of its operating budget and from the Federal Race to the Top grant to pay for pre-K classes. Those pots of money have been strained in recent years.

DeAnna McClendon, the district’s Early Childhood Program Manager said all Head Start classes this fall will look more similar to the district’s K-12 academic programs and have a stronger emphasis on reading and higher standards for pre-K teachers. Officials on Tuesday showed board members a rubric in which students will be measured on their language and reading acquisition throughout the year.

McClendon also said the district would hire additional positions to assure program quality including a data compliance advisor and assistant, an education analyst, a strategic initiatives manager and three early childhood instructional advisors.

Some of the county’s approximately 350 Head Start workers attended last month’s board meeting amid concerns that they could lose their jobs or suffer a reduction in benefits.

But Netra Weatherby, a Head Start family services advocate said she was told teachers would still have their jobs at the same rate of pay. Weatherby thanked Superintendent Dorsey Hopson II after Tuesday’s meeting.

Contact Tajuana Cheshier at tcheshier@chalkbeat.org and (901) 730-4013.

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