The nonprofit overseeing early childhood education efforts in Memphis has a new executive director.

Kandace Thomas was approved Thursday by the board of First 8 Memphis, and will start work April 1.

Thomas had previously been with the Irving Harris Foundation in Chicago for the last 13 years, most recently as a senior program officer, according to her online LinkedIn profile. Irving Harris is a grant-making body that supports the development of young children, arts and culture, and social change.  

Thomas said she is excited to join First 8 to work on behalf of young children in Memphis. “There has been so much amazing work that has happened in early childhood and early education in Memphis over the last few months,” she said. “I’m committed to the work that’s happened here and want to elevate youths 0 to 8.”

She said her first steps will include introducing herself to people and “getting grounded in the community.” 

First 8 was launched last year as the fiscal agent to oversee public and private funding for early education initiatives in an effort to save thousands of prekindergarten seats that were in jeopardy when federal funding ended. Its goal is to build a strong foundation for children in Memphis and Shelby County focusing on early childhood programs, including home visits, quality childcare and pre-k programs, and grades K-3. 

“For us it was very important that we had somebody that we felt could really understand our community and could operate effectively in our community,” board Chairwoman Kathy Buckman Gibson said. She added that Thomas will bring credibility with community partners.

“With her experience coming out of Chicago and the work that she has done across multiple communities, we felt that she demonstrated that she will understand the issues that we deal with here in Shelby County and the city of Memphis.”  

First 8 initially was poised to hire its first leader last summer, but the candidate declined after taking another position. The board then hired another search firm that members said understood the needs of the Memphis job.