Itty bitty wooden seats. Tiny tables. Miniature bookcases. Sinks less than 18 inches from the floor. It’s a small world but a big undertaking is underway at the new Porter-Leath Early Childhood Academy where 224 of the city’s neediest children learn skills that are expected to change the trajectory of their lives and possibly the course of the community.
The 31,700-square-foot site with 16 classrooms opened in February 2017 and provided for the consolidation and expansion of two Head Start facilities. The building is decorated in blues, yellows and browns, a nod to the geographic location of Memphis between a forest and a river. Skylights and lots of windows bathe the two wings in natural light.
It’s here that a team of children clunk blocks together to concoct a structure on a table, and a boy rattles maracas to a beat he hears inside his head. Around the children hang colorful hand print artwork, eye popping displays of the alphabets and laminated teaching tools, such as an oversize keypad that invites children to dial their telephone number.
“They’re learning more than basic ABCs. They’re learning how to write their names, their colors … how to breathe and relax,” said site manager LaQuita Cole. “It gives them a better chance.”
According to kindergarten-entry assessments, children who attended Porter-Leath preschool surpassed their peers who didn’t have Porter-Leath experience. Officials consider the skills learned during the earliest ages at Porter-Leath are the building blocks for further learning and development in later ages, including in kindergarten.
According to kindergarten-entry assessments, children who attended Porter-Leath preschool surpassed their peers who didn’t have Porter-Leath experience. “They’re learning more than basic ABCs. They’re learning how to write their names, their colors … how to breathe and relax,” said site manager LaQuita Cole. “It gives them a better chance.”
In recent years, organizations across the state, including the Greater Memphis Chamber, have been putting the spotlight on improving the quality of and the access to early childhood education. One of the Chamber’s moon mission objectives is ensuring all children up to pre-K have the opportunity to receive quality education, which is expected to increase their chances for academic and economic success. As officials strategize to better the quality of life for individuals and provide pathways to economic success for all in Memphis, Porter-Leath’s role is essential.
Porter-Leath’s new academy accepts children starting at age 6 weeks to its federally-funded early-Head Start and Head Start programs. The oldest students are 5 years old. Each year, the academy accepts 160 new students in the greatest need. They come from all over the city. Transportation isn’t provided, however, day cares may drop off and pick up students. Children’s speech skills are evaluated, and their vision and hearing is tested. Porter-Leath also works with the families on such things as literacy and the importance of parents reading to their children. To be eligible, the annual income of a family of four must not be greater than $24,300, however, different scales are used for the homeless and for those in the Families First program, which provides support services for needy families.
While the new academy doesn’t include pre-kindergarten, Porter-Leath operates 11 “full-service” locations and partners with other educational facilities to reach children before they enroll in kindergarten. In 2017, Porter-Leath spent $24.8 million for its preschool programs and served 6,556 children.
Shuntail Thomas waited on a list to get her children into the new Porter-Leath academy.
A mother of five, Thomas grew up in the South Memphis neighborhood where the academy was constructed, and she sure does wish she’d had access to such a place when she was a child. “Growing up, I wasn’t a great reader. I’m still not, but I’m pressing it in my kids. Having support offered here is invaluable.”
Getting her kids in at Porter-Leath was important not only for her children’s education but economically for the whole family. Child care was too expensive. “I stayed home with them until I got that call. With no one (to watch them), I had to let my job go. I had to stay home and be mom.”
Now president of the academy’s parent group, Thomas has a 2-year-old boy at Porter-Leath and a 5-year-old girl. Her older girl transitioned out and is now in kindergarten – and on the principal’s list.
Porter-Leath wants to better early education outside its walls, too. In February 2017, the non-profit launched the Teacher Excellence Program, open to educators across Shelby County, including charter school providers and day care operators. More than 600 early childhood providers have participated in the training course since its inception.
Rob Hughes, vice president of development, said, “With so much need for quality early-childhood education, Porter-Leath continues to find ways to provide continuing education and professional development for early-childhood providers in Shelby County – so that more children can benefit from a quality program.”
Story by Toni Lepeska
Photos by Troy Glasgow