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Future of Pre-K in high-quality child care Centers

I-Rise Christian Academy co-founder Sebrenia Denton (middle) works with students Ryleigh Stevenson, 3, (left) and Willie Gregory III, 3, (right) on Friday, July 30, 2021 in Hickory Hill. (Mark Weber/The Daily Memphian)
I-Rise Christian Academy co-founder Sebrenia Denton (middle) works with students Ryleigh Stevenson, 3, (left) and Willie Gregory III, 3, (right) on Friday, July 30, 2021 in Hickory Hill. (Mark Weber/The Daily Memphian)

Pre-K’s future can be found in child care centers across Shelby County.

Porter-Leath’s NEXT Memphis initiative is providing business and educational services and support to 20 minority/women-owned independent child care centers, with plans to support 20 more next year.

SCS, meanwhile, has contracted with about 20 high-quality child care providers to run about 75 pre-K classrooms this year. That includes two dozen Head Start classrooms.

The $32 million NEXT Memphis program was launched in January 2020 with eight other child care centers. All eight remain open.

Four of the first eight also happen to be child care centers that have Voluntary Pre-K programs with SCS.

“We’ve had a rough couple of months with the Head Start contract, but we will continue to support and work with SCS and all other early childhood providers,” said Sean Lee, Porter-Leath’s executive director. “This work is too important.”

Joris Ray, SCS Superintendent, couldn’t agree more. “Research shows that children are more successful in school and beyond if they are given a strong foundation in the early years of their lives,” Ray said. opens in a new windowWhat the SCS/Porter-Leath split means for pre-K

This month, for the first time, Shelby County will be providing needs-based pre-K seats to all 8,500 eligible 4-year-olds.

Early childhood education advocates say access to high-quality child care is the next goal for more than 40,000 children under age 4.

There are about 750 state-approved child care providers in Shelby County. Only 250 of them scored three-stars, the state’s highest standard. Earlier this year, legislators revised the child care rating system. Updated ratings will be released soon.

Only 24 local providers are accredited by the National Association of Educators of Young Children — the highest national standard. Ten are Porter-Leath centers. 

“Our city, state and nation have a ways to go on solving the shortage of affordable high quality childcare for our 0- to 3-year-olds,” said Blair Taylor, CEO of Tennesseans for Quality Early Education.

“I’m encouraged though that business and government have increasingly recognized the critical role of child care as both an early learning setting as well as a crucial support for working families and the businesses that depend on parents in the workforce.”

The pandemic has complicated the challenge.

Nationally, about a quarter of the child care providers that closed last year didn’t reopen. More than half of those that did report losing money every day.

And more than half of all minority-owned child care providers are in danger of closing this year, reports the National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC).

I-Rise Christian Academy in Hickory Hill has been running at about a quarter of its capacity through the pandemic.

The three-star child care center opened in 2013 at World Overcomers Church. It nearly closed for good last year, after a beloved church member became Shelby County’s first COVID-19 victim.

I-Rise Christian Academy co-founders Cory and Sebrenia Denton. (Mark Weber/The Daily Memphian)
I-Rise Christian Academy co-founders Cory and Sebrenia Denton. (Mark Weber/The Daily Memphian)

“We closed for three weeks, but I’m not sure we would have been able to reopen, if it hadn’t been for the support and guidance we received from NEXT Memphis,” said Sebrenia Denton, I-Rise’s co-founder and director.

Denton was a dispatcher for the Bartlett Police Department. Her husband also worked, so they put their children in a home-based daycare.

“Our four-year-old son was emotionally and verbally abused by the owners’ biological children,” she said. “My husband and I decided that I would resign from my job and care for our children myself.”

Months later, she started Little Miracles Learning Center in her home. In 2013, she and her husband, who also coached little league football, started I-Rise, a name inspired by Maya Angelou’s poem, “StilL I Rise.”

I-Rise cares for 65-70 children ages six weeks to five years, including pre-K. It is licensed to care for 240.

I-Rise Christian Academy student Ryleigh Stevenson, 3, works on an arts and craft project. (Mark Weber/The Daily Memphian)
I-Rise Christian Academy student Ryleigh Stevenson, 3, works on an arts and craft project. (Mark Weber/The Daily Memphian)

“I’m still learning how difficult it is just to keep the doors open, not to mention providing exceptional care, safety and healthy nutrition, high-level learning, staff and family support, and so on,” Denton said. “The task is bigger than I thought. We’re not just babysitting.”

Through the pandemic, NEXT Memphis has provided business and financial support, wraparound services for families, and professional development for staff.

“High-quality pre-K is vital, but we can’t just start with pre-K,” said Chloe Moore, NEXT Memphis program director. “We know that 80 percent of a child’s brain develops by age 3. We need to provide a continuum of high-quality care from birth to kindergarten.”

This story first appeared at dailymemphian.com under an exclusive use agreement with The Institute. Photos reprinted with permission of The Daily Memphian.

Written By

David Waters is Distinguished Journalist in Residence and assistant director of the Institute for Public Service Reporting at the University of Memphis.

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