Success in Early Childhood Strengthens Our Community

According to traditional wisdom, the best place to start is at the beginning. When it comes to tackling some of the most pressing issues facing the city, this advice is no less pertinent. So when People First, a non-profit initiative of Memphis Fast Forward, took on the challenge of improving education and talent retention in Memphis, they started at the very beginning — before a student is even born.

"In order to have a successful career as an adult, you have to start at the cradle, and actually even earlier than that," says Dottie Jones, the Shelby County government director of community services and co-chair of the early childhood component of People First. This concept, termed the "cradle to career pipeline," forms the necessary foundation to help make children ready to learn by the time they enter kindergarten.

"We believe that children having quality care and experiences from birth until the time they enter school greatly contributes to their success later on," says Barbara Prescott, executive director of People First. "For this reason, children entering kindergarten ready to learn is the first of our four goals on the cradle to career continuum."

Starting before a child's birth, the organization promotes quality prenatal care for pregnant moms by supporting early home visitation programs, such as the Nurse-Family Partnership. Designed to help first-time moms, the program pairs them with registered nurses who make regular visits from pregnancy until the child turns two years old.

"What programs like this one have done is provide coaching for inexperienced moms and a knowledge resource about early childhood development," says Hank Herrod, the co-chair of People First's early childhood component. "In addition, these programs represent an opportunity to bring in somebody from outside the home and neighborhood who the mom ends up trusting. The end result has been definitively positive in each of these areas."

Thus educated on the importance of her child's earliest years, the mom can then strive to provide the kind of care and attention that help prepare him to enter kindergarten ready to learn. In addition to prenatal care, People First seeks to achieve school readiness by strongly supporting expansion of Pre-Kindergarten to all at-risk 4-year-olds in Shelby County.

"The goal is to increase the number of slots available in Pre-K programs so that every child whose parents wish for them to participate can have that chance," says Herrod. "The data from Memphis City Schools supports the idea that children who have gone to Pre-K do much better on the Kindergarten Readiness Index than children who don't have that exposure or than those cared for at an unaccredited neighborhood facility."

While the merits of universal voluntary Pre-K may seem apparent, the idea has not always been a topic of public conversation, and the attention it has garnered recently is due in part to its promotion by People First.

"This interest and emphasis on early childhood education represents an enormous change from the way things were a few years ago," says Herrod. "There's a lot more conversation around the issue of early childhood and the best way to optimize brain development during those earliest years."

Research compiled by The Urban Child Institute clearly indicates the importance of these years in a child's development. By promoting these findings and supporting programs that seek to implement them, People First seeks to effect long-lasting change that will positively impact the future of the city.

"People First is really working to ensure that Memphis optimizes the educational and training experiences of its citizens," says Herrod, "and to support programs that help retain these better educated people who heavily contribute to the city."