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County-wide pre-K initiative seeks to level the playing field for early childhood education

One thousand students in need do not have a place in pre-K in Shelby County, and the county is on track to lose an additional 1,000 spots when funding from a four-year pre-K development grant  from the Obama administration runs out at the end of the 2018 to 2019 school year.

In response, Memphis mayor Jim Strickland announced March 17 that the city is committed to raising $6 million of the necessary $16 million to fully fund need-based pre-K by 2022.

How It Works

The funding will come from two sources: taxes from businesses that have received Payment-In-Lieu-of-Taxes (PILOT) incentive agreements and from diverting one cent from property tax revenue toward a pre-K fund.

As the PILOT agreements expire, businesses who were given tax breaks will have to begin paying taxes and the city has decided to earmark up to $6 million of this revenue for universal pre-K.

The project is bolstered by several community partners, including the city council, the county commission, Shelby County Schools, and Seeding Success, the community partnership that drafted First 8 Memphis, the early childhood education plan for Shelby County that outlines a strategy to improve outcomes by building a fully-funded home visit, childcare, and education system from birth to age 5.

Seeding Success executive director, Mark Sturgis, says that the community partners will create an independent board for the pre-K fund and that funds for creating new pre-K classrooms will be available to any operator, including public schools, charter schools, and even private schools as long as they meet the high level of quality and accountability standards Seeding Success has laid out in its plan.

Sturgis says there are some key factors they are using to define quality and that many of them have already been proved effective by evaluations of the pre-K classrooms that have already been added as a result of the federal grant over the last three years.

Publicly funded pre-K classrooms will be required to have a certified teacher with a bachelor’s degree and experience in early childhood education; an environment will need to meet structural elements such as safety and a center-based design that allows for play; a high-quality curriculum based on state-mandated standards; a small student-teacher ratio; and extended family services.

“It makes it more expensive, but we’ve seen really good results,” Sturgis said.

The Importance of Early Childhood Education

Dr. DeAnna McClendon, director of Early Childhood Education for Shelby County Schools says that Memphis needs to “take the time to celebrate this phenomenal achievement” and says that she has seen firsthand through data and personal interactions with students the positive effects of pre-K education.

“We have lots of data that we’ve been able to show that our pre-K students — even when we test them in second grade — that pre-K students in any academic subcategory and any gender and race outperformed students who had not been in pre-K program.”

Data cited in the Seeding Success First 8 Plan shows not only that Shelby County children who participated in pre-K improved their language development and reading readiness but that those with a greater number of risk factors made greater gains. For example, children with four identified risk factors, such as learning disabilities, childhood trauma, or poverty raised their scores an average of 19.3 points compared with 7.4 points for those with zero risk factors.

In contrast, she says that in 2017, three Kindergarten principals called her and needed help because their students who had not been in pre-K didn’t know how to socially or emotionally navigate being in school and were not ready to learn. They put a program in place to help the students learn behavioral expectations of the classroom, but it took six weeks out of the school year.

“With our state standards being a lot more rigorous than they were a few years ago, Kindergarten is not a place you can come in and spend six weeks getting used to academics. You have to come in at day one ready to learn with a great foundation in literacy and numeracy skills and social and emotional skills,” she said.

The three goals of providing social-emotional skills, academic readiness, and support for the students’ families are at the heart of the idea of quality pre-K.

Children enrolled in pre-K develop literacy, language, and math skills faster than their non-participating peers and have better attendance, fewer behavior problems, and increased chance of reading at grade level by fourth grade.

The Obstacles to Early Childhood Education

For parents who do not have the financial capability to send their children to private pre-K, their children immediately start with an academic disadvantage in addition to the disadvantages that come from living in poverty.

Eligibility for pre-K enrollment through Shelby County Schools is based on a risk-assessment model that includes economic factors as well as academic screening, but until needs-based pre-K is fully funded, many children will go without a place in a classroom. The goal is to provide pre-K for all students in need by 2022.

“Pre-K gives an opportunity for all students to start the race at same point,” Dr. McClendon said. She added that, based on MAP assessment testing, those who attend pre-K at SCS outperform those who did not by eight percentage points across all academic categories.

She said that in addition to quality instruction, at-risk students and their families need other forms of support, which they offer to make sure the children can be successful throughout their years in school.

SCS pre-K programs offer career coaching for parents and help families with financial goals such as home ownership or buying a car. They also educate parents about how to support their children up to graduation.

One obstacle for families who qualify for public pre-K, McClendon says, is transportation. While older students can take the bus to school, parents are required to arrange transportation for their pre-K students and many do not have stable transportation. Eligible parents who speak with McClendon say this prevents them from ever registering their preschool aged children.

While this is an obstacle, Sturgis points out that in addition to reducing negative impacts from growing up in poverty by being in a nurturing environment at preschool age, pre-K programs also allow parents who cannot afford childcare to return to work or to their education.

“When we have 13,000 jobs unfilled in the region, this tells us we need to bolster our workforce and [need-based pre-K] is a great way to do this,” Sturgis said.

Support for this story was provided in part by the Urban Child Institute; it is part of a series highlighting the impact and importance of early childhood education and the pressures it faces across Memphis.

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