Porter-Leath Continues Preschool Programming after Shelby County Schools Destroys Nationally-Renowned Early Childhood Education Partnership

MEMPHIS, Tennessee – Porter-Leath will continue providing preschool services for children and families in the upcoming school year, while SCS chooses to absorb additional dollars that could be used to support children and families. 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. Despite ongoing negotiations, Porter-Leath learned on a statewide phone call from SCS staff that the District will end the partnership at the conclusion of the current contract, which ends June 30, 2021.

Porter-Leath Preschool will continue to use its high-quality programming model and structure. Eligible families will be able to access State of Tennessee Department of Human Services resources—and for the first time, Porter-Leath Preschool will also be open to any family with preschool-age children at the following locations:

  • American Way Preschool & Early Head Start (4207 American Way) - 170 children 
  • Cottonwood Preschool (5221 Cottonwood Road) - 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 (3274 Range Line Road) - 88 children
  • Porter-Leath and University of Memphis Early Childhood Academy (opens January 2022) - 268 children

The Porter-Leath and SCS partnership solidified Shelby County as a national leader in providing high-quality early childhood services. Accomplishments include $49.5M in private funding raised by Porter-Leath for the construction of four state-of-the-art Early Childhood Academies along with increased school readiness results, with end-of-year scores now consistently in the 72% to 82% range vs. 61% prior to the start of the Head Start partnership in 2014. Porter-Leath was commended in a national statement by then-Director of Head Start Dr. Deborah Bergeron, for its partnerships across Early Head Start, Head Start, and Child Care Partnerships as a leading example in the United States. 

Porter-Leath elevated early childhood outcomes in Shelby County by creating and implementing the Teacher Excellence Program (TEP) in 2017 to improve the skills and teaching practices of educators, including SCS teachers and teachers in local preschools and childcare classrooms. Private funds were raised by Porter-Leath in 2020 to allow each TEP Instructional Coach to obtain their Certificate in Early Education Leadership from the Zaentz Professional Learning Academy at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. Porter-Leath raised $160,000 to conduct community-wide research of the early childhood workforce by Bellwether Education Partners. The research informs long-term strategies to attract more professionals into early childhood positions in Memphis. Porter-Leath connected Memphis with numerous national partnerships to meet children’s developmental, physical and emotional needs. Partnerships include Momentous Institute, LENA, and Sesame Street in Communities which provide evidence-based resources, strategies and support for educators and caregivers. 

SCS’s total Head Start grant has increased from $20.1M in 2014 to $25.6M today and the District has discretion on how to spend it to meet Head Start standards. Over the last seven years, Porter-Leath's Head Start grant has fallen $701,000 while SCS' budget for Head Start has increased $4.5M. This means that SCS has kept a rising amount of the Head Start funding for administration of the grant while shorting services and vital resources for families.

“We were not included in the Reimagine 901 Plan by the District, but had responded to three issued, then canceled, RFPs from the District. We remained in negotiations with SCS, including Superintendent Dr. Ray directly, and were appalled to learn indirectly of the District’s move on a statewide phone call this morning,” said Sean Lee, Porter-Leath President. SCS is walking away from millions of dollars of private investment in infrastructure and quality improvement, but Porter-Leath will continue to utilize those investments to serve families going forward. We know that the best place for children and families is with Porter-Leath.”

Porter-Leath Board of Directors Chair, Jason Dombroksi shared “This is a disappointing development in light of the seven years of what we believed to be partnership and after Porter-Leath’s dedicated efforts to bring capital and innovation to Shelby County’s investment in early childhood services. Despite lack of communication, engagement, and professionalism from SCS, we are committed to serving children and families using our proven best-practices in early childhood education.” 

Porter-Leath Response to SCS Press Release Issued Thursday, June 10th:

  • The annual Porter-Leath contract services 3200 children under the Head Start contract: 1520 in full service, and 1680 in wraparound services. This can be verified by Porter-Leath’s contract with the District. Additionally, Porter-Leath serves 600 children through Fund I and 120 children through VPK.

  • Porter-Leath requested the true cost of services for Head Start. Over time, Porter-Leath’s reimbursement contract with SCS has declined, while SCS has absorbed federal increases, with no difference in number of children served or scope of services. The total grant has increased to $25.6M, while Porter-Leath’s share has decreased from $16.7M to $16.03M since 2014. The number of children served by the grant has remained the same each year:

  • Porter-Leath is not offering fewer services. The only change in service proposed was that SCS would pay health care providers instead of Porter-Leath. Porter-Leath would continue to coordinate health services.

  • There will be a major disruption of services for children and families, as SCS will immediately lose five centers owned or leased by Porter-Leath that serve 1,000 children and families each year.

  • Porter-Leath agrees that SCS is out of compliance with Head Start and was trying to help bring the District into compliance. SCS treated Porter-Leath as a subrecipient of HHS funds and is thus obligated to pay Porter-Leath’s federally approved indirect cost rate. Head Start standards require SCS to pay Porter-Leath’s federally approved indirect cost rate of 13.4%. SCS agreed to fund this percentage, but required equal cuts elsewhere in the budget to maintain the total overall cost.

  • SCS Pre-K Growth outcomes represent results achieved directly by Porter-Leath for 3920 children, who are included in the 5,600 children cited by SCS:

    • Separately, Instructional Support gains are the result of Porter-Leath’s Teacher Excellence Program investments, which provides practice-based coaching and evidence-based support for early childhood educators.

Porter-Leath Statement on Head Start Compliance

Porter-Leath is focused on providing a high quality early childhood option for children. While doing so, we also must correct the record being given around compliance.

The compliance issue mentioned by SCS during negotiations with Porter-Leath and agreed to by Porter-Leath's attorney 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. The audit referenced in media reports was a District-hired consultant who audited the District's contract (not Porter-Leath) and determined SCS was out of compliance with its contract. While both parties agreed that the contract was out of compliance, there was not agreement on the method the District proposed to fix their noncompliance, which was to first eliminate many positions and indirect costs and then to limit them to only 3.6%. This left too large a quality gap that we would have to fund raise for Porter-Leath to say yes to the offer. Prior statements about Porter-Leath being the sole cause of the District having to recompete for the grant in 2019 are also not accurate to the District's own 2015 report to the SCS Board indicating nine (9) total Grantee deficiences and four (4) additional non-compliance items - all 13 of which were in SCS owned facilities. 

Porter-Leath was an excellent partner for Shelby County Schools throughout the seven years as evidenced by the District's efforts to first award Porter-Leath the Head Start RFP and then spend days attempting to negotiate a new contract. To state now that somehow Porter-Leath's performance was not up to standard is unfortunate and unfounded.

Porter-Leath's Next Steps

Porter-Leath is proud to continue serving the Memphis community using its innovative and research-based best practices.

All children and families deserve access to high-quality early childhood services, and that is exactly what Porter-Leath has proven it can deliver. As Shelby County Schools continues to repeat the same inaccurate statements and disrupt families, Porter-Leath stands by the information and facts that we have previously shared and is currently enrolling families for the upcoming academic year. 

Porter-Leath’s quality and outcomes are indisputable and our preschool sites are prepared for an outstanding school year beginning in August. Staff members look forward to seeing next year’s students and would love to host any family who is looking for the best preschool option for their two to four year old child on a tour of our locations. To enroll your child, please visit or call 901-577-2500 x 1146.