The sparkling, spacious and mostly (so far) empty Porter-Leath Early Childhood Center in Frayser represents the uncertain yet promising future of early childhood education in Memphis.
The $11.7 million, privately funded, state-of-the-art center was built to serve 200 Head Start 3- and 4-year-olds and 48 Early Head Start infants and toddlers, all from low-income families in one of the city’s largest and more distressed neighborhoods.
But when Shelby County Schools reopen Monday, many of those 200 Head Start kids, and up to as many as 1,500 others who attended Porter-Leath centers, likely will be going somewhere else.
Porter-Leath’s Head Start contract with SCS, which included social services for 3,200 children, expired June 30 after both sides failed to agree on a new contract, then failed to agree on the reasons why.
Now, the school district is working to provide pre-K seats and services for all 3,200 Head Start children, and Porter-Leath is working to enroll hundreds of preschool children to fill five centers built for Head Start.
Advocates for early childhood education say the breakup with SCS was an abrupt, discouraging, unfortunate, and perhaps unavoidable end to Porter-Leath’s two decades of becoming one of the nation’s largest and most successful providers of Head Start services.
They also say the contract problems between the school district and the social agency shouldn’t overshadow the significant and hopeful steps being taken to expand and improve Shelby County’s early childhood education system.
In fact, this month, for the first time, Shelby County is expected to reach its goal of providing universal, needs-based pre-K programs for all the estimated 8,500 low-income 4-year-olds who are eligible.
“That’s an incredible achievement,” said Mark Sturgis, executive director of Seeding Success, one of several local agencies that have been collaborating to reach that goal. “The breakdown between SCS and Porter-Leath was unfortunate, and it has created some confusion, but no one is pumping the brakes. Local commitment to early childhood education is stronger than ever.”
That commitment includes:
- First 8 Memphis, a nonprofit formed in 2019 to coordinate the work of government, nonprofit and private organizations to build an Early Childhood System in Shelby County. First 8 is the fiscal agent for pre-K funds allocated by city and county governments, in large part to make up for $8 million in lost federal funds in 2019.
- Porter-Leath’s two new Early Childhood Centers in South Memphis and Frayser, a third under construction in Orange Mound, and a fourth planned for Hickory Hill — a $50 million, privately funded investment in pre-K.
- Porter-Leath’s $26-million NEXT Memphis initiative, which will provide business and educational services and support to 40 minority/women-owned independent child care centers, with a long-term goal of supporting hundreds.
- The Early Success Coalition’s ParentPlus, a new referral program connecting pregnant women and new parents to home visiting services, including Porter-Leath’s Early Head Start and LeBonheur’s Nurse-Family Partnership.
- LENA, a technology-based program that shows parents and childcare providers the value of “early talk” with infants and toddlers, whose brains are forming more than 1 million neural connections every second. The University of Memphis, Agape, Le Bonheur and Porter-Leath have worked together to expand the program to hundreds of caregivers.
- The ACE Awareness Foundation, founded in 2015 to address the impact of chronic trauma and stress (adverse childhood experiences and environments) on children. Although the foundation closed March 31, its signature Universal Parenting Place program will continue at Kindred Place (formerly the Exchange Club Family Center).
- The Early Literacy Consortium, a group of more than 30 local agencies, nonprofits and foundations who meet monthly at the Urban Child Institute to share ideas and strategies for improving kindergarten readiness and third grade reading levels.
“Memphis is fortunate to have leaders with the vision to invest in early education,” said Blair Taylor, CEO of Tennesseans for Quality Early Education, “and it’s exciting that we’ll be the first city in Tennessee to achieve universal needs-based pre-K access.”
That access hasn’t come quickly or easily. The history of Head Start in Memphis is fraught with battles over funding, control, race, and responsibility.
Porter-Leath’s new early childhood center in Frayser opened in May.
Its 16 spacious classrooms, eight cushioned playgrounds, and tiny tables and chairs welcomed 24 infants and toddlers for Early Head Start, and about 100 children from Delano Head Start. The pandemic kept the numbers down.
”That’s about half capacity,” said Brittany Bowman, the center’s director. “We are looking forward to being full. The children were so happy to be here.”
The new Porter-Leath center is across the street from Whitney Elementary, but it was built to replace the aging Delano Head Start Center less than a mile away.
Whitney is in the Achievement School District and has its own Head Start classroom for 20 children. ASD has about 100 Head Start students in its four elementary schools in Frayser.
Delano Head Start is in a separate building behind Delano Optional School, which is an SCS school that also has two pre-K classrooms — one funded by Head Start, the other by school district.
The pre-K hodgepodge in Frayser reflects the wide, expanding — and sometimes confusing — range of early childhood programs across the county.
The federally funded Head Start program is the largest but not the only pre-K provider in Shelby County.
Head Start funds 3,200 needs-based pre-K seats, but an additional 2,320 pre-K seats are funded by SCS, by the state’s Voluntary Pre-K program, and by city and county government via First 8.
This year, Memphis city government will provide $6 million and Shelby County $8 million to fund about 1,000 needs-based pre-K seats.
Tennessee’s Voluntary Pre-K (VPK) competitive grant program, launched in 2005, provides $85 million for 18,000 3- and 4-year-olds in 935 classrooms each year. That includes 600 children in Shelby County.
ASD, charter schools, and suburban school districts provide 820 additional seats. High-quality (NAEYC and three-star) child care programs provide 1,840 more.
Many other preschool programs are offered by an array of organizations, including private schools, colleges, churches and other religious organizations, and childcare centers.
All government-funded pre-K classrooms are considered high-quality, meeting certain health, safety and academic standards, often determined by government. They also include health and social (wraparound or two-gen) services for children and their families.
“Pre-K is the most pivotal part of a child’s education,” said Divalyn Gordon, director of Early Childhood Education for SCS. “It gets a child ready for kindergarten academically and socially. It also helps prepare the family.” Locally, about 70- to 80% of Head Start kids have tested as kindergarten-ready over the past five years. The goal is 90%.
The local push for pre-K lost some momentum in 2013 when Memphis voters rejected a half-cent sales tax increase to fund 4,500 more seats.
The movement took another hit in 2015 when a Vanderbilt University study cast doubt on the value of the state’s Voluntary Pre-K program.
The five-year study found that children who attended VPK classrooms did significantly better in kindergarten than their non-pre-K peers. Surprisingly, the study also showed that those early academic gains “faded out” by third grade, and those students eventually fared worse in school. The study didn’t attempt to explain why.
Vanderbilt’s researchers were “stunned” by the findings. The study “raises many questions about what is happening in the grades after pre-K that may be causing students not to maintain their pre-K gains,” Mark Lipsey said at the time.
In 2019, a follow-up study by Vanderbilt and Brown University addressed those questions.
Tennessee’s VPK students “maintained their advances in math and reading through at least the third grade,” the new study said, “if they also were exposed in early grades to highly effective teachers and a high-quality school. Conversely, pre-K benefits wore off,” the study said, “if participants went on to classes with ineffective teachers, in low-quality schools, or both.”
That study and others propelled the formation of First 8 in 2019. The agency’s goal is to build an “early childhood education system” that aligns the county’s home visitation, child care, pre-K and K-third grade programs.
“The end of Shelby County Schools and Porter-Leath’s long-held early childhood partnership reminds us that early childhood education and programs require collaborative approaches between multiple stakeholders,” said Kandace Thomas, First 8’s executive director.
Health and safety concerns
In April, the Shelby County School Board approved — unanimously and without discussion — the transfer of all 200 Delano Head Start kids to the new Frayser center.
Delano Head Start, built solely for that purpose by Shelby County government in 1994, is owned by SCS. The Head Start program there was run by Porter-Leath.
“The approval of relocation of services will ensure students are able to learn in a healthy and safe environment,” the board was told in documents submitted by the SCS Office of Early Childhood. “If not approved, Shelby County students in the Frayser area will remain in an infrastructure that is no longer suitable for top-quality Early Childhood education services.”
In June, Ray told the school board that safety concerns “in Porter-Leath classrooms” at Delano were among the reasons SCS allowed Porter-Leath’s contract to expire.
According to SCS, a 2019 federal inspection found a faulty grease trap at Delano Head Start that “resulted in a health and safety violation.”
That wasn’t the first time. According to a 2016 SCS “Head Start Corrective Action Internal Plan,” federal inspectors found three serious deficiencies at Delano Head Start.
- Broken glass and protruding metal bolts on the play area, and a 4-inch gap in the fence around it (”posing an entrapment issue”).
- Clogged kitchen sinks “filled with a brownish-red substance and bits of food and paper, resulting in an unsanitary and unhealthy food-preparation area.”
- A faulty grease trap “overflowing on the back side and underneath the building’s foundation” along with “standing water and a sludge-like substance coating the ground.”
Workers cleaned up the playground, fixed the fence, unclogged the sinks, repaired the grease traps, and hauled away 35 gallons of liquid waste.
“SCS was required to reapply for the (Head Start) grant and would not have otherwise been required to do so, if these Porter-Leath non-compliance issues were not cited,” Ray said.
Porter-Leath says that’s inaccurate, and that Shelby County was required to reapply for the Head Start grant in 2019 because of numerous health and safety issues at 13 sites, all owned by SCS, including Delano.
In all, federal inspectors found “deficiencies” at nine Head Start sites, all owned by SCS, according to the report.
Those deficiencies included exposed electrical wires at Lucy, inoperable bathroom sinks at Raineshaven and Fairley, and sink water “hot enough to burn a child’s hands” at four sites. The inspectors also found less hazardous “areas of concern” at nine Head Start sites, all owned by SCS.
All issues were addressed. The school district reapplied for the Head Start grant in 2019 and got it, but there would be more difficulties ahead between the school district and social agency.
“To state now that somehow Porter-Leath’s performance was not up to standard is unfortunate and unfounded,” Lee said. “We’ve delivered high-quality Head Start services for a long time.”
Porter-Leath’s changing role
Porter-Leath, opened in 1850 as the Protestant Widows’ and Orphans’ Asylum, has been providing local Head Start services for 20 years.
In 2000, Shelby County Mayor Jim Rout asked the venerable foster-care agency to take over a new $2.3 million Head Start center in the Douglass community.
Porter-Leath had been awarded the Early Head Start contract Shelby County in 1998. The agency still runs that program for pregnant women, infants, and toddlers at 11 locations, including the agency’s historic campus on Manassas.
“The county needed help with Head Start, and they trusted us because we’d done a great job with Early Head Start,” said Mike Warr, who began expanding Porter-Leath’s early childhood services when he became executive director in 1998. “We knew what we were doing.”
Warr, an Arkansas native and Navy veteran, moved to Memphis in the 1970s and became one of the city’s leading restauranteurs, owning and operating Captain Bilbo’s, Le Chardonnay, Bayou Bar and Grill and several others.
He sold his restaurants in 1992 and began volunteering in a different sort of service industry. He helped to establish Youth Villages and became an auxiliary probation officer at Shelby County Juvenile Court.
“I had a wonderful childhood — a family I could trust, friends I could depend on, a great school,” Warr said. “When I began volunteering, I saw that a lot of children don’t have what I had. I just wanted to help.”
In 1997, Juvenile Court Judge Kenneth Turner asked Warr to help Porter-Leath, which was in danger of losing its United Way funding. Warr applied to become executive director, got the job, and expanded the nonprofit’s mission to focus on early childhood development.
Meanwhile, Shelby County Head Start Inc., a nonprofit formed to provide Head Start services, was running into problems.
The nonprofit’s longtime director, Ed Mayhue, was fired in 1997 by three board members — at a meeting attended by only five of nine board members. The next year, board member Sara Lewis was hired to run the organization.
In 1999, board member Watson Anderson Jr. resigned after pleading guilty to falsifying invoices at his own government-subsidized daycare center. He repaid the amount and was sentenced to 10 months in prison.
Sara Lewis resigned in 2000 after federal inspectors ordered the county to fix serious deficiencies in the program. They cited failures to serve children with disabilities, poor health care and nutrition services, deteriorated facilities, sloppy record-keeping, and insufficient teacher training.
“They were substantially out of compliance and had some serious problems,” Michael Carpenter of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services told The Commercial Appeal.
By 2001, the county was contracting with Porter-Leath and half a dozen other local agencies to provide some Head Start services.
Porter-Leath took over the new 160-student Douglass Head Start Center. Two years later, it opened the new 238-student American Way Head Start Center.
In the coming years, other county mayors turned to Porter-Leath for help.
Head Start and false starts
In 2003, federal auditors found more problems with Shelby County Head Start Inc. There were tens of thousands of dollars in unaccounted for charges and thefts. The program was running an annual deficit of about $300,000.
Shelby County Mayor A C Wharton terminated the county’s $12 million contract with Shelby County Head Start Inc.
County government took over Head Start Inc.‘s 16 centers that served 2,095 preschoolers. Seven other local agencies, including Porter-Leath, continued to provide Head Start services for 1,091 children.
In 2007, Wharton asked Porter-Leath to consider doing even more. He proposed a two-year, $12.6 million contract to transfer 1,120 of Head Start’s 3,186 children to Porter-Leath.
Porter-Leath promised to spend at least $5 million in private funds to build three new Head Start facilities.
“What we’re trying to do is to bring capital and resources to the table,” Wharton told county commissioners. “We have a good Head Start program. I want a better Head Start program.”
County commissioners rejected Wharton’s proposal. Commissioners Ernest Chism and Henri Brooks said Porter-Leath didn’t have the “cultural sensitivity” to run a program for Black children. Sean Lee, Porter-Leath president, and Mike Warr, executive vice president, are white.
A month later, Wharton and commissioners compromised. They agreed to transfer 460 Head Start children to Porter-Leath’s care.
Porter-Leath agreed to take the smaller contract but said its private donors would no longer provide $5 million for new facilities.
Wharton vetoed the compromise contract and the county continued to run the Head Start program for seven more years.
In 2013, Shelby County Mayor Mark Luttrell, like his predecessor, said it was time for the county to get out of the Head Start business.
“I’ve always been concerned about our inability to cover the number of children that really needed Head Start,” Luttrell said then. “We are now serving roughly 3,200 children with $23 million. We’re barely scratching the surface of the need in this community in that area.”
Luttrell asked Porter-Leath to bid for the entire federal contract. Commissioners Brooks and Chism balked again and pushed the newly reconstituted Shelby County Schools to make a bid.
Brooks called Porter-Leath’s leaders “poverty pimps” who “come from their middle-class, or upper-class or rich perspective and impose their expectations for people who live in poverty.”
In 2014, Shelby County Schools was awarded the federal Head Start grant, and almost immediately contracted with Porter-Leath to provide most of the services.
New school district, new start
The federal Head Start program was launched in 1965 as part of President Johnson’s “war on poverty.”
Its aim is to provide free “high-quality early childhood education” to low-income families, based on federal poverty guidelines. Ten percent of the seats are reserved for children with disabilities.
In addition to pre-K classrooms, Head Start provides health and social services — “wraparound services” — to children and families who qualify. Those include immunizations, dental, medical, mental health, and nutritional services, and developmental screenings.
Parents also can participate in classes and workshops on child development and receive help with job training, housing, and other needs.
“We find that Head Start not only enhances eventual educational attainment … but also causes social, emotional, and behavioral development that becomes evident in adulthood measures of self-control, self-esteem, and positive parenting practices,” the Brookings Institution said in a 2016 study of the program.
Stephanie Love, a Shelby County school board member since 2014, has a soft spot in her heart for Head Start.
Love, who lives in Frayser, attended Douglass Head Start in the mid-1980s. Her own children attended Delano Head Start in the mid-2000s.
“For my children, it prepared them for kindergarten and gave them the foundation needed to grow and be challenged,” Love said. “For me as a parent, it gave me the tools needed to hold the educational system accountable for all they are required to do. It allowed me the opportunity to amplify my voice in a way so folks knew my children are the most important thing to me and should be to you.”
Love’s involvement in Head Start gave her a head start in politics.
One afternoon in 2011, Love got fed up with Delano’s crowded and dangerous parking lot and started directing traffic. “The kids were in danger,” she said. “I decided there had to be a better way.”
Love took photographs and took her case to the Head Start Policy Council and Shelby County’s Head Start office. The parking lot problems were fixed.
Love soon became a member of the policy council, a group of parents and community members who help make decisions about the program.
In 2013, when Luttrell asked Porter-Leath to apply to run Head Start, Love led a petition drive to get the newly reconstituted Shelby County Schools to apply.
“It wasn’t just a Black thing,” Love said. “It was a lack of sensitivity to race and class that had concerned myself and other parents for a while. For example, they didn’t want our little girls wearing head bows or beads. We were worried that Porter-Leath was going to take our identity from our children.”
Love was elected to the new county school board in 2014.
“Since I’ve been on the board, I’ve continued to state that something was not right with the Porter-Leath contract, and I’ve been dismissed,” Love told Ray and her fellow board members June 14. “So thank you for doing the right thing. Thank you, thank you, thank you.”
Shelby County Schools has administered the county’s annual Head Start grant since 2014. Last year it received $25.6 million.
Porter-Leath has been SCS’s primary provider of Head Start services since 2014. Last year it received $16.8 million.
The relationship began to sour in 2019, according to Warr and Love, when Ray replaced Dorsey Hopson as superintendent, and Gordon replaced DeAnna McClendon as director of SCS Early Childhood Programs.
SCS hired the consultant in September 2019 to review the Porter-Leath contract “in preparation for SCS’ first ever federal fiscal compliance audit” scheduled for fall 2021.
“I think Dr. Ray and Dr. Gordon both decided that SCS should have the entire Head Start program,” Warr said. “And now they do.”
“Dr. Ray and Dr. Gordon have been adamant about making sure that everyone is doing what is best for all our children,” Love said. “And if they think there’s a better way, that’s what they’re going to do.”
The consultant’s report was issued just before the pandemic started in 2020. Ray and other SCS leaders spent the rest of the year dealing with larger issues.
Last December, the Shelby County Board of Education extended Porter-Leath’s Head Start contract through June 30, unanimously and without discussion. There was no mention of the consultant’s report.
But in February, to Porter-Leath’s surprise, SCS issued a formal request for proposal (an RFP) “seeking applicants to provide Head Start direct services to total of 1520 children and their families, through the operation up to 76 classrooms.”
Over the next three months, SCS issued and canceled three RFPs. Ray said the RFPs were issued to address and correct “non-compliance issues” identified in the consultant’s 2020 report.
“SCS later attempted to conduct direct negotiations with Porter-Leath in hopes that a mutually agreeable solution could be developed,” Ray told the board June 14.
Lee said Porter-Leath wasn’t notified about the RFPs, “even though those are the Head Start services we provided.” He said the consultant’s report “was never shared or discussed with Porter-Leath by SCS.”
“While both parties agreed that the contract was out of compliance,” Lee said, “there was not agreement on the method the district proposed to fix their noncompliance.”
Non-compliance and non-agreement
The 2020 consultant’s report listed dozens of “concerns” about the Head Start contract with “Porter Leach” (the agency’s name was misspelled several times in the review).
Nearly all the concerns were bookkeeping matters, recommendations for ways SCS could clean up and clarify language and details in the Porter-Leath contract and budget.
But three “non-compliance concerns” loomed large in the failed contract negotiations between the school district and social agency.
Contractor or sub-recipient?
“The Porter-Leath partnership was formalized under a contract agreement,” SCS said. “Due to the amount of autonomy and services provided by Porter-Leath, the federal guidelines strongly suggest that the partnership should have been formalized under a sub-recipient relationship.”
Added Ray: “No other Head Start partnership of this size and nature in the U.S. is formalized under a contract agreement.”
Porter-Leath agreed but argued the problem “was solely with the way SCS created the contract with Porter-Leath. SCS chose from 2014-2021 to treat Porter-Leath as a contractor when it was actually a federal subrecipient.”
Porter-Leath “was trying to help bring the District into compliance,” the agency said.
That led to disagreements on two other “concerns” in the consultant’s report.
The consultant said Porter-Leath “is at ‘risk’ of exceeding the executive level II compensation cap.” The annual salary cap was $192,300; Lee was scheduled to make a bit over $210,000.
“Porter-Leath communicated no plans to correct this compliance issue,” Ray told the board.
Porter-Leath said that’s incorrect. The executive salary cap doesn’t apply to federal contractors, but if Porter-Leath became a subrecipient, the cap would apply.
“There was no confusion on our end that if we became a subrecipient in the ‘21/‘22 year, my salary would not be paid from indirect costs,” Lee said.
Indirect (overhead) costs
The consultant said, “indirect costs for both Porter-Leath and SCS are in excess of the allowable indirect cost rate of 3.08% (3.66% for FY2022) approved by the Department of Health and Human Services.”
Porter-Leath said those are state rates and don’t apply to federal contractors. ”Head Start standards require SCS to pay Porter-Leath’s federally approved indirect cost rate of 13.4%,” Lee said.
Porter-Leath’s approved indirect (overhead) cost rate is 13.4%, according to federal Head Start documents. The rate would have been 12.5 after removing Lee’s executive salary.
Lee said the 3.66% rate proposed by SCS would have required the agency to cut 50 staff members and services for 250 children.
“We would have to raise about $1.3 million to cover the shortfall, or cut staff and services by that amount,” Lee said.
Trust and true costs
On June 7, SCS and Porter-Leath both submitted final contract proposals, but they were still about $1 million apart.
Porter-Leath said it needed $13.2 million to cover “the true costs” of the Head Start program for 1,520 students at its own centers. SCS offered $12.3 million.
SCS said Porter-Leath’s proposal would have cut 15 Head Start classrooms and discontinued “wraparound” services for 720 SCS and VPK students.
Porter-Leath “requested additional funding to provide fewer services to pre-K students at a higher cost,” the board was told June 14. “Approving Porter-Leath’s request for increases in their administrative fees and indirect costs could result in loss of funding for ALL of Shelby County’s Head Start Pre-k classes, not just those served by Porter-Leath.”
Porter-Leath noted that their annual Head Start funding had declined by $700,000 since 2014, while federal Head Start funding to SCS had increased by $4.5 million.
“SCS has continually decreased Head Start funding available to Porter-Leath, making continued operations in Porter-Leath centers using Head Start resources impossible without significant cuts that would diminish quality and increase risks to health and safety for children, families, and staff,” Porter-Leath said.
SCS said their own costs have gone up considerably as they’ve added more pre-K seats and services (including playgrounds) via city, county, and state funding.
The Head Start negotiations, which began in earnest in May, ended abruptly June 10. After seven years together, Shelby County Schools and Porter-Leath were breaking up.
Ray announced that SCS would manage all Head Start seats and services, and that Gordon had “identified up to $3 million in educational cost savings … to strengthen services and program expansions.”
“I refuse to let adult issues stand in the way of educating our children,” Ray said. “Literacy is life. 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.”
Meanwhile, Lee announced that Porter-Leath would continue “its high-quality programming model and structure” to provide preschool services at its five early childhood centers.
“SCS is walking away from millions of dollars of investment in Head Start,” Lee said. “But Porter-Leath will continue to find ways to serve preschool children and families. This community needs as much quality early childhood care as possible. Our future depends on it.”
The school district plans to open 172 Head Start classrooms for 3,200 students. That includes an additional 13 classrooms in SCS schools, and 63 classrooms at charters, Head Start centers and child-care providers.
Delano Head Start, closed in April for “health and safety” concerns, has been renovated. SCS will reopen all 10 classrooms this month.
SCS also is adding five Head Start classrooms to the two it already supports at Future Leaders Learning Academy child care in Frayser.
Porter-Leath is working with parents to use state DHS vouchers and sliding-scale tuition fees to enroll 826 preschool children in its five Early Childhood Centers — South Memphis, American Way, Cottonwood, Range Line and Frayser.
The agency plans to open a new $15 million center in Orange Mound early next year, in a pre-K partnership with the University of Memphis. Another new center is planned for Hickory Hill in 2023.
“The SCS, Porter-Leath relationship is broken, and that’s not good for kids,” said Cardell Orrin, executive director of Stand for Children, and co-chair of the Early Literacy Consortium.
“There were trust issues on both sides, issues around power, race, and responsibility that had been building for some time. But what’s more important is the community’s will to create an equitable and just early education system for all children. We need SCS and Porter-Leath and local government and everyone to be all in.”
This story first appeared at dailymemphian.com under an exclusive use agreement with The Institute. Photos reprinted with permission of The Daily Memphian.