new chapter

Memphis early education giant merges with Dolly Parton’s Imagination Library affiliate

PHOTO: Porter-Leath
Since 2005, Books from Birth has distributed free books to children up to age 5 as the Shelby County affiliate of entertainer Dolly Parton’s Imagination Library. The program will now be housed under Porter-Leath.

If Memphis is going to help its children become better readers, it needs to get books into their hands as early as possible.

That’s the thinking behind the newly announced merger of Shelby County Books from Birth with Porter-Leath, the city’s leading provider of early childhood education for children in low-income areas.

Since 2005, Books from Birth has distributed free books to children up to age 5 as the Shelby County affiliate of entertainer Dolly Parton’s Imagination Library. Under an agreement finalized late last week, the program will now live under Porter-Leath, a nonprofit organization that oversees Head Start classrooms and wraparound services in partnership with Shelby County Schools.

The merger marks a concerted effort by Porter-Leath to move literacy education beyond the classroom by giving parents the tools they need to be their child’s first teachers. It also should expand the reach of the book delivery service in one of the state’s highest-poverty counties.

State and local leaders increasingly view better early education programs as key to higher rates of literacy in Shelby County Schools, where less than a third of third-graders are reading on grade level.

“(Books from Birth) will help us drive home the literacy lessons were making in the classroom,” said Rob Hughes, Porter-Leath’s vice president of development. “We want our students reading on grade level in kindergarten, so that they grow to be on grade level in elementary school, so they have a better chance of graduating high school. We see this a key piece of that strategy.”

Porter-Leath serves about 6,000 annually in 300 early childhood classrooms, and all of its children will now be enrolled in the Books from Birth home delivery program.

Read how Porter-Leath is seeking to up the quality of pre-K instruction in Memphis.

Through Porter-Leath, the group’s leaders hope to expand monthly book deliveries beyond 46,000 children, or 70 percent of pre-K children in Shelby County. (Memphis has a high rate of mobility, making it difficult to keep track of and serve youngsters.)

“It’s always been a challenge to keep families enrolled, and this partnership helps us really support the families that Porter-Leath serves,” said Jamila Wicks, executive director of Books from Birth. “We can better reach parents where they are.”

Making the grade

New York City gets a gold medal for pre-K quality and access, new report finds

PHOTO: Christina Veiga/Chalkbeat
Pre-K students play during center time at The Renaissance Charter School in Jackson Heights, Queens. New York City earned high marks in a national review of pre-K programs.

New York City’s pre-K program earns high marks when it comes to quality and access, according to a new report that ranks early childhood education in major cities across the country.

That’s according to CityHealth, a policy advocacy group, and the National Institute for Early Education Research at Rutgers University, an authority on pre-K research.

The city is one of only five that were awarded CityHealth’s highest ranking — a gold medal — for meeting at least eight of 10 benchmarks for effectiveness and having high student enrollment. The report evaluated pre-K programs in the country’s 40 largest cities.

“I think New York City should be very proud of their program, and it really is a model for other cities,” said Ellen Frede, senior co-director of the institute. She was not an author of the report.

New York fell short on two measures: teacher training and education requirements for classroom assistants.

The knock on teacher training is surprising, given that the city often touts its dedication to professional development as one of the major factors contributing to program quality

Also surprising: The report gives New York City credit for pay equity, which measures whether pre-K teachers are paid similarly to their K-12 colleagues. Only in city-run classrooms do early childhood educators earn the same as teachers who work with older students. But most pre-K students attend community-based programs, where teachers can earn as little as 60 percent of the salary paid to those who work for the city.

“It’s equity to some extent. There is work to be done there in New York City,” said Albert Wat, senior policy director for Alliance for Early Success, who peer-reviewed the report.

Still, New York City is far ahead of many other cities such as Indianapolis, where enrollment is low and programs show few of the marks of high quality. Education department spokeswoman Isabelle Boundy called the city’s early education efforts a “game-changer.” Since Mayor Bill de Blasio took office, the city has made free pre-K available to all 4-year-olds and has begun to expand the program to 3-year-olds.

“As New York City continues to increase access to free, full-day, high-quality early education, our programs are on par with gold-standard programs across the nation,” she wrote in an email.

The rankings are awarded by CityHealth, a non-profit funded by the de Beaumont Foundation and Kaiser Permanente, which notes the long-term health benefits afforded by pre-K. In New York City, a 2017 study showed improved health outcomes for low-income children after the launch of universal pre-K. Other studies, however, have shown mixed results.

You can read the full report here.


Early education

New pre-K report gives Memphis bronze medal, Nashville gold

PHOTO: Jacinthia Jones
Pre-K students at Lucie E. Campbell Elementary in Memphis.

A new report on quality and access to early education programs across the country gives Memphis a bronze medal, mainly for providing prekindergarten for at least 30 percent of the city’s 4-year-olds, and Nashville a gold medal for meeting both quality and accessibility standards.

The report said in addition to accessibility, Memphis met benchmarks related to classroom size, teacher-child ratio, and teacher education level, but missed the mark when it came to curriculum or learning goals, teacher professional development, and local funding commitment.

Nashville met criteria for accessibility, classroom size, teacher-child ratio, teacher education level, local funding, and professional development. Both Memphis and Nashville met standards for salary equity, meaning that prekindergarten teachers were paid similar to K-12 teachers.

The report  was produced by CityHealth, a policy advocacy group, and the National Institute for Early Education Research at Rutgers University, an authority on pre-K research.

Memphis officials were quick to take issue with the report’s finding regarding local financial support. “Mayor (Jim) Strickland has been committed to pre-K funding since he’s been on the council,” said Doug McGowen, the city’s chief operating officer. He also noted that as a councilman, the mayor advanced two pre-K referendums, although both were defeated by voters.

Most of the 5,600 subsidized preschool seats in Shelby County Schools are funded through state and federal grants. Last year, the Memphis City Council allocated $8 million to replace an expiring federal grant and another $8 million to add 1,000 preschool slots, McGowen said.

After 2021, he said, the city will maintain $6 million in annual funding. Shelby County government is working on additional funding streams.

Read the full report below: