Porter-Leath announces partnership with University of Memphis as part of major early childhood expansion

A Memphis prekindergarten giant plans to build three new childcare academies over the next three years – and announced Thursday that one of them will be in partnership with the University of Memphis.

Porter-Leath raised $36 million to build the academies, which will be similar in size and quality to its prized Early Childhood Academy in South Memphis, according to documents made available at a Shelby County Schools board committee meeting this week.

The expansion comes at a time when school, city, and county officials are discussing expanding quality pre-K seats. Research shows that students benefit from both well-funded schools and access to quality early childhood education. That’s particularly important in Memphis where 35 percent of children live in poverty and have limited access to many childcare services.

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

Porter-Leath President Sean Lee emailed the district on Monday to inform leaders of the proposed centers. The change could relocate existing Porter-Leath Head Start sites in Memphis to those neighborhoods.

“Replacing these centers will improve the overall health/safety of the program and will put more funds into programs that are currently spent maintaining aging facilities,” Lee wrote.

What’s unclear is whether or not Shelby County Schools will approve the Head Start classrooms to move to new locations.

“This is the first step in a process to get approval from the district to continue scaling early childhood quality across the county,” said Porter-Leath spokesperson Rob Hughes. “We look forward to engaging in each neighborhood.”

The organization announced earlier this month that it would build one of the centers in the Frayser neighborhood in partnership with Girls Inc., a Memphis nonprofit organization. The center working with the University of Memphis would be located on Park Avenue, and both centers are set to open in 2021.

The Park Avenue center would allow the university to expand its elementary and secondary reach in Memphis – the University of Memphis already operates an elementary school and middle school in partnership with Shelby County Schools.

A third potential center, which would be located in Hickory Hill, is set to open in August 2022.

Porter-Leath educates most of Shelby County Schools prekindergarten students. The nonprofit opened its South Memphis campus in 2017. (Laura Faith Kebede / Chalkbeat)

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 leading provider of early childhood education in Memphis. Through a contract with Shelby County Schools, it provides Head Start classrooms across the city and wraparound services such as special education screenings and health care.

At its South Memphis center, which opened in 2017, Porter-Leath has trained more than 500 Memphis educators in an effort to boost the quality of early education instruction in Memphis.

According to a statement, the organization would be able to provide similar training at the University of Memphis center, as well as research opportunities for university professors.

A number of seats will be available to children of university students, faculty, and staff, but Porter-Leath and university officials declined to say exactly how many.

“We are excited about this partnership and the support it will provide for the children of our faculty, staff, students, and community members in addition to the robust research, training, and observation opportunities it will promote for our academic programs,” said Sally Parish, the university’s associate vice president for educational initiatives.