Even the hallway walls of Memphis’ glowing new pre-K center are designed to engage 4-year-olds. Rows of textured blue grooves, symbolizing the city’s mighty Mississippi River, beg to be touched.

Classroom windows are positioned at eye level for small children to peek through. And an array of sturdy new props supports an environment for both learning and play.

Porter-Leath’s new Early Childhood Academy will open Friday as the first of its kind in Memphis. With 32,000 square feet of space developed with $9 million in private funding, the center will serve some 220 kids through Head Start, a federally funded program for the nation’s poorest children.

But equally important, the South Memphis center will become a hub of teacher training in an effort to bolster the quality of all of the city’s pre-K classrooms.

PHOTO: Porter-Leath
Porter-Leath serves children 5 and under in Head Start classrooms.

Porter-Leath has served the city’s poorest children since its founding in 1850 as an orphanage. Its offices are in the former orphanage building on land donated by Sarah Leath, a widow and mother who took the lead in organizing the charity. Today, the nonprofit organization has emerged as the lead provider of early childhood education in Memphis. In partnership with Shelby County Schools, it provides Head Start classrooms across the city and wraparound services such as special education screenings and health care.

Pre-K advocates are calling the new academy — and especially its focus on training quality pre-K teachers — unlike anything else in Tennessee.

How to define and measure “quality” pre-K has been a source of debate, especially since a Vanderbilt University study concluded in 2015 that academic gains achieved by students in Tennessee pre-K classrooms flickered out by third grade. The surprising findings prompted a reexamination of the quality of early learning programs across Tennessee, and state lawmakers responded by passing a 2016 law designed to improve pre-K classrooms.

The new Memphis academy represents a major investment by Porter-Leath and its supporters to determine what practices are most effective in its own classrooms and to share those lessons across the city through teacher trainings. Speakers and highly ranked teachers will be brought in to share their expertise.

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
An observation room allows teachers in training to peek into a classroom.

“Thanks to the classroom observation rooms, educators who just came from a seminar will be able to see that skill they just learned about in action,” said Rob Hugh, the organization’s development director. “Before they leave, they will have to go into the classroom and practice for themselves. We see this as a chance to raise the quality of our staff and the staffs of daycares throughout the city.”

Porter-Leath will provide “relief teachers” for those who can’t afford a substitute to encourage Memphis daycare operators to let their teachers take advantage of the training.

Tennessee has a three-star evaluation system for early childhood providers, but it focuses more on safety and health than quality of instruction, said Daphanie Swift, early childhood director at PeopleFirst Partnership, a coalition of business, government, academic and civic leaders.

“The vast number of child care providers in the city have a long way to go with providing quality education,” Swift said. “This new training academy is a new concept for early childhood, and we hope will raise the bar for rigor in instruction.”

Hughes said all of Porter-Leath’s 300 classrooms across the city, which serve almost 6,000 students a year, have three stars. However, only 15 classrooms reach the level of instructional quality required to be accredited by the National Association for the Education of Young Children, which Porter-Leath views as the gold standard.

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
A worker assembles toys at the new academy.

The 16 classrooms added under Porter-Leath’s new academy are significant as the city searches to provide more pre-K seats, especially in low-income areas.

The academy is located next to Alton Elementary School, a strategic move. The hope is that its pre-K students will feed the Shelby County school, which serves one of Memphis’ poorest zip codes.

Memphis has a shortage of quality pre-K seats, and the academy already has a wait list of 144 families. Estimates of how many income-eligible children lack access to quality pre-K range from 2,200 to 5,000.

Swift said that PeopleFirst Partnership will continue to push for more quality pre-K seats — and philanthropic support to pay for them. The coalition organized a pre-K summit last summer to discuss what impact a recent $70 million federal grant has made on Memphis pre-K so far.

“I think a light bulb has finally come on in the city that pre-K is a needed investment,” Swift said. “We have to pay attention to those critical years of 0-5. So much of what we’re trying to address, from crime to low third-grade reading levels, can be warned against in those early years.”