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Shelby County Schools ends partnership with pre-K provider Porter-Leath and competes for students

Children at a Porter-Leath classroom show off their new books. Porter-Leath is the largest provider of early childhood education in Memphis.
Children at a Porter-Leath classroom show off their new books. Incoming pre-K students enrolled at Porter-Leath through Shelby County Schools could lose access to Porter-Leath buildings and services after the district failed to renew the organization’s contract. 

After Porter-Leath executives abruptly learned on Thursday that Shelby County Schools was not renewing the organization’s contract to provide prekindergarten classes for hundreds of students, “blindsided” Porter-Leath officials scrambled to reassure affected parents and reflect on how a 7-year partnership crumbled.

“They’ve got to find a spot for 1,000 children before next school year,” said Rob Hughes, vice president of development for Porter-Leath, noting that incoming pre-K students enrolled at Porter-Leath through Shelby County Schools will lose access to Porter-Leath buildings and services unless they sign up for one of Porter-Leath’s other programs.

“I think the big thing is that it didn’t have to be this way. This didn’t have to happen. This decision makes zero sense,” Hughes added.

District officials were not immediately available for comment. The district said in a statement Thursday that it will expand its internal pre-K operations after “unsuccessful negotiations with Porter-Leath.” Its statement said the sticking point was the rising cost of the more than $16 million contracts.

Hughes said that the announcement was “a complete shock.”

“Honestly, we thought that we were in negotiations with them until there was a statewide phone call today with the Tennessee Head Start Association, and an SCS staff member said that they were going to announce today that they were going to pull Head Start away from Porter-Leath,” said Hughes on Thursday. “So that was the way we found out that we were done after seven years of partnership.”

Currently, there are 5,600 pre-K students in the district, and Porter-Leath officials said that they provide services to 3,200 of those students through its pre-k classrooms, Head Start program, and vision, dental, and hearing screenings. About a thousand of those students, including some prekindergartners whom district officials moved from Delano Head Start to Frayser Preschool in April, are based at one of Porter-Leath’s campuses housed at the following locations:

  • American Way Preschool & Early Head Start — 170 children
  • Cottonwood Preschool — 156 children
  • Early Childhood Academy (628 Alice Avenue) — 142 children
  • Early Childhood Academy in Frayser (3060 Baskin Street) — 170 children
  • Frayser Preschool and Early Head Start — 88 children
  • Porter-Leath and University of Memphis Early Childhood Academy (opens January 2022) — 268 children

The comprehensive operation costs about $18.2 million annually, said Hughes. This year, Shelby County Schools paid just shy of $17 million, according to district records. Porter-Leath has historically covered the difference by fundraising. This year, the nonprofit organization hoped that the district would close the increasing gap.

“SCS has that money. There’s a $25.6 million grant that they are absorbing,” said Hughes, referencing an early childhood education grant from the Department of Health and Human Services.

“The money is there. They will not budge to cover the true cost of the program. They want everything that we’ve proposed locked in for that $16 million number. It’s just unfathomable,” he added.

In a statement, Superintendent Joris Ray said, “Our early childhood Director Divalyn Gordon has identified up to $3 million in educational cost savings to provide services to SCS families.”

He added, “Rather than paying increased administrative costs to Porter-Leath, SCS aims to apply these cost savings to strengthen services and program expansions.”

In its own statement, one of four volleyed between the two organizations on Thursday, Porter-Leath said, “SCS chooses to absorb additional dollars that could be used to support children and families” and instead suggested cuts that would “diminish quality and increase risks to health and safety for children, families, and staff.”

Leaders at both organizations said that they are working to minimize the disruption this change will bring for children and families, a critical factor said, Katy Spurlock, deputy director of the Urban Child Institute.

The Urban Child Institute is one of Chalkbeat Tennessee’s funders and a research and advocacy organization that promotes the education and well-being of children.

“UCI feels that whoever holds the Head Start contract — and provides these services for eligible children in Shelby County — needs to ensure high quality services for those in the program,” said Spurlock. “We also feel that families need to be assured a seamless transition as this contract change is occurring six weeks before the service year begins for Head Start children and their families.”

Shelby County Schools and Porter-Leath are currently enrolling students in their competing pre-K programs. Hughes emphasized that families who qualify can enroll in Porter-Leath for no or reduced cost through the Tennessee Childcare Certificate Program.

“We would love to talk to any mom about what next school year looks like for her children,” added Hughes. “Every parent has a choice.”

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