Under one umbrella: Memphis coordinates preschool funding and evaluation to boost quality

Shelby County is coordinating — and paying for — early education initiatives through an unprecedented public and private collaboration being overseen by the new nonprofit First 8 Memphis.

“This is is really an aligned strategy for the entire city and the entire county,” Regina Walker, interim executive director of First 8, told her board members Tuesday. “And it gives us the opportunity to work collectively so as a county we can be marching to the same beat.” 

The joint commitment to fund early education and prekindergarten services, including money for the first time from the city of Memphis, seeks to save thousands of prekindergarten seats that were in jeopardy when federal funding ended June 30. First 8, which aims to prepare children for kindergarten, was created as the fiscal agent to oversee public dollars for early education efforts and to leverage private funding as well.

This year, 10 operators will run 70 prekindergarten classrooms for about 1,400 of the county’s neediest 4-year-olds, most in Memphis. 

The providers are the same ones who oversaw existing programs previously funded under the federal Preschool Development Grant or directly funded by Shelby County government as part of its matching funds for that grant program that expired in June, said Mark Sturgis, executive director of the nonprofit Seeding Success, the parent organization from which First 8 spun off.

The pre-K providers are a mixture of traditional and charter schools and include Aspire Hanley, Bartlett City Schools, Shelby County Schools, the Achievement School District, Millington Municipal Schools, Freedom Preparatory Academy, Libertas School of Memphis, Memphis Scholars, KIPP Memphis Collegiate Schools, and Capstone Education Group, which runs Cornerstone Prep. Additionally, Libertas, Capstone and Porter-Leath, the city’s largest provider of early education services, are contracted to provide wraparound services such as developmental screenings, home visiting support programs, parent coaching, and after-school programs to accommodate parents’ work schedules.

The pre-K classrooms are open now, although some contracts still have to be signed, officials said. The goal is to eventually expand beyond existing pre-K providers and to also bring support services and quality curriculums to day care centers and ultimately in-home providers.

A critical component of the First 8 strategy relies on “outcomes-based financing,” which means that funding depends on results. “First 8 will fund pre-K programs through its resources, and as that program delivers on outcomes, the city and county dollars will then pay back that investment,” Sturgis said. 

First 8 has secured a $7.5 million loan, according to budget documents, which is expected to be repaid from local taxpayer dollars. City and county governments have set aside $11 million in an escrow account for pre-K, he said.

The outcomes that must be met are satisfactory attendance, early literacy growth and quarterly reporting. 

The results-based funding model helps satisfy some local politicians who wanted proof about the quality of the pre-K programs and assurances that classrooms wouldn’t sit empty. 

The group Seeding Success will provide the data to First 8 to measure outcomes. Specifically, the group will collect daily student attendance, reading assessments and tests measuring development skill mastery. They will also track academic progress in reading during the kindergarten year. 

Besides public money and local philanthropic support, Sturgis said that First 8 has applied for the three-year, $100 million MacArthur challenge grant and has advanced to the second round. The grant would provide national expertise and would present the county’s early education efforts for consideration to other national funders. First 8 will find out if it won in November 2020.

This article tackles a topic raised during our 2019 Listening Tour. Read more about the Listening Tour here, and see more articles inspired by community input here.