big debut

Memphis is about to open a major pre-K center. Advocates hope it’s just the start.

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Porter-Leath's Early Childhood Academy readies for its grand opening on Friday. The center features a state-of-the-art preschool and teacher training institute.

Even the hallway walls of Memphis’ glowing new pre-K center are designed to engage 4-year-olds. Rows of textured blue grooves, symbolizing the city’s mighty Mississippi River, beg to be touched.

Classroom windows are positioned at eye level for small children to peek through. And an array of sturdy new props supports an environment for both learning and play.

Porter-Leath’s new Early Childhood Academy will open Friday as the first of its kind in Memphis. With 32,000 square feet of space developed with $9 million in private funding, the center will serve some 220 kids through Head Start, a federally funded program for the nation’s poorest children.

But equally important, the South Memphis center will become a hub of teacher training in an effort to bolster the quality of all of the city’s pre-K classrooms.

PHOTO: Porter-Leath
Porter-Leath serves children 5 and under in Head Start classrooms.

Porter-Leath has served the city’s poorest children since its founding in 1850 as an orphanage. Its offices are in the former orphanage building on land donated by Sarah Leath, a widow and mother who took the lead in organizing the charity. Today, the nonprofit organization has emerged as the lead provider of early childhood education in Memphis. In partnership with Shelby County Schools, it provides Head Start classrooms across the city and wraparound services such as special education screenings and health care.

Pre-K advocates are calling the new academy — and especially its focus on training quality pre-K teachers — unlike anything else in Tennessee.

How to define and measure “quality” pre-K has been a source of debate, especially since a Vanderbilt University study concluded in 2015 that academic gains achieved by students in Tennessee pre-K classrooms flickered out by third grade. The surprising findings prompted a reexamination of the quality of early learning programs across Tennessee, and state lawmakers responded by passing a 2016 law designed to improve pre-K classrooms.

The new Memphis academy represents a major investment by Porter-Leath and its supporters to determine what practices are most effective in its own classrooms and to share those lessons across the city through teacher trainings. Speakers and highly ranked teachers will be brought in to share their expertise.

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
An observation room allows teachers in training to peek into a classroom.

“Thanks to the classroom observation rooms, educators who just came from a seminar will be able to see that skill they just learned about in action,” said Rob Hugh, the organization’s development director. “Before they leave, they will have to go into the classroom and practice for themselves. We see this as a chance to raise the quality of our staff and the staffs of daycares throughout the city.”

Porter-Leath will provide “relief teachers” for those who can’t afford a substitute to encourage Memphis daycare operators to let their teachers take advantage of the training.

Tennessee has a three-star evaluation system for early childhood providers, but it focuses more on safety and health than quality of instruction, said Daphanie Swift, early childhood director at PeopleFirst Partnership, a coalition of business, government, academic and civic leaders.

“The vast number of child care providers in the city have a long way to go with providing quality education,” Swift said. “This new training academy is a new concept for early childhood, and we hope will raise the bar for rigor in instruction.”

Hughes said all of Porter-Leath’s 300 classrooms across the city, which serve almost 6,000 students a year, have three stars. However, only 15 classrooms reach the level of instructional quality required to be accredited by the National Association for the Education of Young Children, which Porter-Leath views as the gold standard.

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
A worker assembles toys at the new academy.

The 16 classrooms added under Porter-Leath’s new academy are significant as the city searches to provide more pre-K seats, especially in low-income areas.

The academy is located next to Alton Elementary School, a strategic move. The hope is that its pre-K students will feed the Shelby County school, which serves one of Memphis’ poorest zip codes.

Memphis has a shortage of quality pre-K seats, and the academy already has a wait list of 144 families. Estimates of how many income-eligible children lack access to quality pre-K range from 2,200 to 5,000.

Swift said that PeopleFirst Partnership will continue to push for more quality pre-K seats — and philanthropic support to pay for them. The coalition organized a pre-K summit last summer to discuss what impact a recent $70 million federal grant has made on Memphis pre-K so far.

“I think a light bulb has finally come on in the city that pre-K is a needed investment,” Swift said. “We have to pay attention to those critical years of 0-5. So much of what we’re trying to address, from crime to low third-grade reading levels, can be warned against in those early years.”

Teaching teachers

How a Memphis pre-K giant is changing the way early childhood educators are taught

PHOTO: Porter-Leath
Porter-Leath's new training program places emphasis on early literacy.

Morgan Bradley thought that teaching children at her church’s Sunday school would have prepared her to work in early childhood education.

But the recent college graduate was shocked by all she learned at a recent training at Porter-Leath’s new Early Childhood Academy.

“I thought I knew how to work with little kids, but I didn’t know how much a child’s brain develops during those years before kindergarten,” said Bradley, who will be helping in a Head Start classroom through AmeriCorps. “I’m realizing now how necessary good teaching in pre-K is to getting a baby ready for kindergarten, especially when it comes to using my words to build a child’s vocabulary.”

Bradley is one of more than 500 educators who will go through Porter-Leath’s training this year in an effort to boost the quality of early education instruction in Memphis. Porter-Leath is the city’s largest provider of early childhood education and has a partnership with Shelby County Schools for Head Start and other services, including training.

The program comes as Tennessee grapples with a low literacy rate and mixed quality of early education programs. Education Commissioner Candice McQueen has emphasized the need for better early childhood education across the state for Tennessee to improve as a whole.

Porter-Leath’s trainings are held almost monthly and revolve around four tenets: socio-emotional learning; literacy; health; and STEAM, or science, technology, engineering, art and math.

The socio-emotional and literacy pieces are what make the program different from usual professional development for early educators, said Rafel Hart, vice president of teacher excellence for Porter-Leath and the training program’s leader.

“When we think about professional development in early childhood, we think about training on CPR and first aid,” he said. “That’s important, but Teacher Excellence focuses on classroom practices. How do we make our quality of instruction better?”

A Memphis organization since 1850, Porter-Leath serves about 6,000 children in its preschool program and employs 670 people. It serves students in some of Memphis’ poorest neighborhoods who may be dealing with the trauma of food or home insecurity at early ages. This makes training teachers in socioemotional learning especially crucial, said Hart.

Porter-Leath’s program draws from organizations like Acknowledge Alliance that trains teachers to help students regulate their emotions and learn self-awareness.

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
AmeriCorps members who will work in Porter-Leath classrooms are among more than 500 educators to go through the training.

“I’ve been in early childhood for 25 years, and socioemotional learning is rarely used,” Hart said. “That’s a tragic mistake we’re correcting. Students can’t grow to develop strong academics if their emotional health isn’t growing first.”

All new Porter-Leath and Shelby County Schools early childhood educators will go through this training, but it’s also open to and encouraged for longtime teachers.

Kelly Thieme, a former literacy specialist and now Porter Leath instructional coach, is especially excited to see the focus on literacy.

“A lot of people don’t understand literacy starts from birth, and speaking to children makes reading and literacy easier,” she said. “We go through current research on how young children learn to read. To me, this helps us and others understand that we’re not just babysitters; it helps us professionalize our profession.”

Paying for pre-K

With clock ticking on federal pre-K grant, districts in Shelby County and Nashville explore next steps

PHOTO: Porter-Leath

Tennessee’s elation at winning a $70 million federal grant to expand pre-K offerings in Memphis and Nashville is now being tempered by the realization that the four-year grant will run out all too soon.

The funds used to pay for dozens of new pre-K classrooms began flowing into five school districts in 2015 and will end in May of 2019.

How to sustain the expansion in Greater Memphis was on the minds of school leaders and pre-K advocates who gathered Wednesday for the second annual Shelby County Pre-K Summit.

Calling pre-K “one of the biggest economic investment opportunities we have,” Shelby County Schools Superintendent Dorsey Hopson said early childhood programs must be a priority.

“In order for us to create an educational system where our most fragile constituents can change their circumstances in life, we’ve gotta make sure that we’re giving them a better opportunity in our district and it starts with pre-K,” he told about 50 people at the summit.

Announced in 2014, the grant from the U.S. Department of Education was a huge win for Tennessee as Gov. Bill Haslam’s administration sought to grow and build a public pre-K program that began under a 2005 state law.

Shelby County Schools was among five needy districts chosen as recipients because of its commitment to developing and funding high-quality programming for their youngest children. The others were Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools, the state-run Achievement School District, and districts in the suburban Shelby County towns of Bartlett and Millington.

The money has added 50 pre-K classrooms in Shelby County and four pre-K centers in Nashville.

Nashville school officials already have begun to develop a strategy to sustain the investments after 2019. At the city’s early education summit last week, Director Shawn Joseph said the district is working to shift money to allow the expansions to continue.

Hopson asked the crowd Wednesday to advocate for ways to sustain expansions in Memphis too — work that he said is key to the success of both the district and the city.

“When you think about correlations between poverty and poor student outcome, our babies who are living in poverty situations through no fault of their own … need to have the early start that it takes so that they can enter kindergarten ready,” Hopson said.

Research shows that disadvantaged young children who participate in high-quality pre-K enter school are more ready to learn than their peers, while also contributing to their success in adulthood.

The quality of Tennessee’s pre-K programs has come under a microscope following the 2015 release of a five-year Vanderbilt University study showing that students who participated saw the effects dissipate by first grade — and even turn negative compared to students who didn’t participate in the program. The researchers suggested that quality might be the issue, and the state has been working ever since to up its game.

The federal grant has been significant in Memphis, which has a high concentration of low-income students and low-performing schools. It now pays for 13 percent of pre-K programs for about 6,500 children in Shelby County. Each classroom costs about $160,000 annually to operate. The county’s long-term goal is for every 4-year-old who needs pre-K to have access to a high-quality seat.