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Costly failures come with lesson: Reading success begins at birth

May 8, 2019

From the Daily Memphian article


Porter-Leath opened its doors as an “orphan asylum” in the 1850s. It changed as the needs of children changed.

The orphanage became a group home for foster kids, then a welfare center serving pregnant teens, homeless kids and other children in need.

Now it’s a vital part of the city’s new education ecosystem, serving children from birth to kindergarten with programs such as Books from Birth, Early Head Start and Head Start.

As a result, Porter-Leath has become a key component in an unprecedented effort to improve early literacy and close the third-grade reading gap starting from birth.

Earlier this year, city, county and nonprofit leaders announced plans to establish a new education system for children ages 0-5.

It’s called First 8 Memphis.

“We know that success in preparing children for kindergarten is crucial for children to read on grade level by third grade, which is one of the strongest indicators for poverty-risk later in life,” said Mark Sturgis, a former White Station high school teacher and executive director of Seeding Success, a nonprofit that is coordinating the effort.

“If we have this plan in place by 2020, we will be serving nearly all at-risk families in Shelby County during the first five years of their child’s life.”

The effort will involve the entire local education ecosystem — government, schools, health care, philanthropy, and a variety of nonprofits including Porter-Leath.

The goal is to engage and support parents to help children prepare cognitively, socially and emotionally for kindergarten, and propel them to be grade-level readers by third grade — age 8.

First 8 Memphis goals:

  • Start a new “light touch” program to contact the 5,800 families of children born into poverty every year in Memphis. A registered nurse would connect families to the 0-5 education system.
  • Double from 1,000 to 2,000 the number of families served by home visitation programs that help new mothers and newborns with nutrition, health care and child development information.
  • Quadruple from 1,000 to 4,000 the number of children served by high-quality, three-star day care centers that help kids with social, emotional and academic development.
  • Increase from 7,000 to 8,500 (full enrollment) the number of children in high-quality, needs-based pre-K programs.

Such a system would cost about $40 million a year, but much of the infrastructure already is in place.

Memphis and Shelby County are on the verge of fully funding quality, needs-based pre-K for all 4-year-olds who qualify.

Porter-Leath already is serving about 5,000 children each year at 14 locations, not counting various SCS and ASD schools.

The agency is working with LeBonheur and the Early Success Coalition to provide home visits.

With county government to provide Early Head Start for children ages 0-3.

And with SCS and ASD to provide Head Start and pre-K for 3-and 4-year-olds.

“Literacy starts from birth,” said Kelley Nichols, who taught at local charter schools before becoming vice president of Porter-Leath’s Teacher Excellence Program. “Eighty percent of a child’s brain develops in the first five years. Kindergarten is too late to start thinking about reading.”