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

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.”