The pandemic is changing how Memphis does preschool

One of the hottest topics in Memphis and across the country is the state of education in the age of COVID-19. These conversations often omit the city's youngest learners and the professionals providing their care and education.  

Learning—social, emotional, speech, and other skills—happens fastest between zero and five years of age. That early growth is important for lifelong learning success. 

"We know that a child's vocabulary at age three is a marker of what their reading ability will be at grade three and that's a marker in terms of high school graduation," said Dr. Loretta Rudd, program coordinator for child development and family studies at the University of Memphis. 

Early learning centers, often called preschools or daycares, give kids a head start on reading, counting, and other foundational pieces of elementary school learning. They also teach the life skills of school, like how to stand in line, interact with peers, stick to tasks, and follow directions.

In mid-October, Rudd and other local early education experts came together for the "Virtual Celebrate What's Right: Early Education" event. They discussed the current and ongoing challenges for early education in Memphis, as well as solution their organizations are employing to keep families connected to pre-K learning in the pandemic.

Caroline Bauman with Chalkbeat Tennessee moderated. The panelists were Rudd; Dr. Kandace Thomas, executive director of First 8 Memphis; Karen Harrell, senior VP of early childhood services for Porter-Leath; and Michael Phillips, executive director of Su Casa Family Ministries.

Bauman said there are around 12,000 four year olds in Shelby County. Roughly 65% are enrolled in public pre-K. Thomas said most of the early learning centers in the First 8 network are currently all-virtual or taking a hybrid approach with in-class and at-home learning.

The most of Memphis' preschools are locally-owned small businesses. Thomas said most of those are owned by women of color.

Bauman cited a study showing 70% of childcare providers have recently poured extra money into their businesses to keep them open and operating safely. Another study estimated half are in danger of permanent closure. 

The event was recorded and is available here. It attracted over 100 real-time viewers.

Highlights from the Conversation:
"We can't expect folks to work with our youngest children without being able to take care of themselves first."

Phillips: "If we believe in having an excellent program, then we have to have excellent teachers. And if we believe that our teachers are excellent, then we have to pay them."

Thomas: "I just think that it's important that we be thinking about a child's well-being, and the well-being comes first. And then from well-being, then they can engage in education.

Thomas: "The only other quick thing I would say for the community, both the corporate and non-corporate community, is just to acknowledge and recognize that early childhood starts way before four years old. It starts way before pre-K. It starts prenatally even."

Rudd: "...I do think in Memphis and Shelby County, where we have some really high-powered corporations that are clearly quite profitable...that having corporate-sponsored childcare subsidized for their employees is really important, especially for those employees who are working second and third shifts."

How They're Helping Parents
The panelists said their organizations are providing support for parents and caregivers who are now teaching their young children at home. They're offering technical support, pointing families to outside resources, helping set learning goals, and more.

Harrell said Porth-Leath is finding that social-emotional support and teaching parents how to advocate for their children's education are key needs in the pandemic. 

"We need that comprehensive support so that we can support the whole child and not just a component of education but the entire family and whole child development," she said. 

Su Casa serves the Latinx community in Memphis, which has been especially disconnected from pandemic information and assistance. Phillips said they've distributed at-home learning activities and offered assistance where they can, especially tech support.

"The truth is with virtual learning, there was a true crisis in our community," he said. "People didn't have devices, didn't know how to turn on devices, didn't have internet, were working hard to get internet, couldn't figure out how to make the internet work, still hadn't turned on a device, didn't have their kids enrolled in the school they really liked once they turned on the device."

Celebrating Stellar Educators
"Celebrate What’s Right" is a quarterly event series hosted by New Memphis. It convenes people from diverse professional backgrounds to elevate their work and that of other innovative Memphians. Past topics include health equity, entrepreneurship, and building the city's brand.

New Memphis also honored the recipients of its 2020 Excellence in Education Award at the October event. The award highlights distinguished local teachers and school leaders.

This year's winners were:
  • Anna Grace Weir of U of M Early Learning & Research Center
  • Christine Shultz of Freedom Preparatory Academy Flagship Middle School
  • Derek King of Southwind High School
  • Elizabeth Warner of Whitehaven High School
  • Omolola Ajayi of S.T.A.R. Academy Charter School

The event sponsors were First Horizon Foundation and Blue Cross Blue Shield of Tennessee. Urban Child Institute was a partner.

The next virtual Celebrate What’s Right event, "Memphis: Culture City USA," will be November 18 from 12 p.m. to 1:00 p.m. It will include: Elle Perry with The Daily Memphian, Isaac Daniel with Stax Music Academy, Jason Wexler with the Memphis Grizzlies, Rachel Knox with the Hyde Foundation, and Whitney Hardy with 3rdSpace and Epicenter. Find more information here.

[Support for this article was provided by New Memphis. Their work highlights the challenges and opportunities facing Memphis and provides a platform for civic education and engagement.]
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Read more articles by Cole Bradley.

Cole Bradley is a native Memphian and graduate of the University of Memphis. Cole's worked locally as a researcher and community engagement strategist and began contributing to High Ground in Jan 2017.