Nonprofit charged with getting Memphis’ youngest students kindergarten-ready says city’s $6 million is just the start

A Memphis nonprofit’s job is to coordinate how $40 million annually would likely be spent on prekindergarten education by 2020. But first, it has to finish the immediate task of making sure a federal grant expiring in 2019 is offset before Shelby County and the city of Memphis lock down their budgets for next year.  

Though Memphis recently committed $6 million toward pre-K funding, Mark Sturgis, executive director of Seeding Success, said the nonprofit hopes both the city and county governments fund a combined $16 million for pre-K seats.

Seeding Success, affiliated with a national group formed to focus on “cradle to career” education, has led the charge to put together the $16 million in recurring funds for pre-K seats as part of its $40 million plan to raise the level of early childhood education in Memphis. Time is short because city and county budgets to determine spending for next year need to be finished before July 1.

“If the city didn’t get involved, we felt like the conversation with the county wasn’t going to go anywhere,” Sturgis said. “Now, we’re able to authentically go to the county commission to talk about an increase in their funding.”

In addition to fully paying for pre-K for all children whose families cannot afford to pay for it themselves, the nonprofit and its partners — such as the Early Success Coalition and Porter-Leath — will focus on home visitations, high-quality childcare, and tracking data to ensure the plan is actually improving kids’ lives. 

Sturgis said if $16 million comes through from the city and county, he’s confident that Seeding Success can find $24 million more through private donations to make the early childhood plan a reality.

The expiration of an $8 million federal grant in 2019 made finding a new source for money even more urgent because the city would lose 1,000 pre-K seats without new dollars. To pay for every child who could not afford pre-K, Memphis would need about 8,400 seats, according to Seeding Success. Currently, more than 7,400 of the city’s 4-year-olds attend a free school program.

Memphis’ $6 million commitment – $2 million less than what the City Council had first discussed – is the city’s first major new investment in Memphis classrooms since 2013, when city and county school systems merged. Shelby County government has since carried the load on funding Memphis schools, including contributing $3 million yearly to pre-K programs.

The nonprofit’s vision is to prepare 90 percent of Shelby County’s children for kindergarten, a big leap from the current 52 percent of children who are kindergarten ready.

Currently, about 1,000 children throughout Shelby County receive home visits, but the goal is to raise $7.5 million annually to increase that number by more than 6,000 children.

Sturgis said home visitations can range in type from nurses helping with prenatal care to early interventions in child development.

The plan also calls for $11.6 million dedicated to bolstering high-quality child care in Shelby County.

There are currently more than 800 child care centers in the Memphis area, Sturgis said, but there is little collaboration between them. Seeding Success’ vision is to create a “shared service” childcare network, which would provide supports including professional development, accounting services, curriculum development and marketing strategies.

“If we fully implement this plan by 2020, we’ll be serving the vast majority of at-risk families in Shelby County during the first five years of their child’s life” Sturgis said. “We believe the impact that will have, not only on kindergarten-readiness but the quality of life of these families in general, will be massive.”