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Porter-Leath and UofM Early Childhood Academy at Orange Mound opening today

Porter-Leath and the University of Memphis are set to celebrate the grand opening for the Early Childhood Academy at Orange Mound Friday afternoon.

The ceremony will start at 1:30 pm and will include speeches from senior-level management at Porter-Leath, as well as speeches from UofM President M. David Rudd and UofM Associate Vice President Sally Gates Parish.

Afterwards, there will be a ribbon cutting followed by refreshments and tours of the new academy.

“The grand opening is going to be very short and sweet,” said Jeffery D. Parker, site operations manager for Porter-Leath.

The event will be both in-person and virtual through Facebook Live. Porter-Leath and UofM broke ground on the Early Childhood Academy in November 2020. According to Parker, the idea to develop the academy came after Porter-Leath noticed there were not a lot of quality child care centers in the area.

“We try to build ties and partnerships with communities who have early childhood needs,” Parker said.

Parker noted that the partnership between Porter-Leath and UofM began since the academy was in close proximity to the university. The facility, originally set to open in January this year, faced delays largely due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The pandemic affected Porter-Leath in many areas, including supply chain in construction, building parts and licensing for the facility.

“We had been ready to actually open for probably a month and a half before we actually got our license,” Parker said. “Due to delays, everyone was short-staffed, so they couldn’t actually get out to do the inspection of the facility.”

The architecture of Early Childhood Academy was inspired by the culture of Orange Mound. Through the exterior that looks like several houses connected together and the interior that includes a front-porch appearance at the entry of each classroom, the academy emphasizes the theme of community at the facility.

“In communities, we want to build, uplift and empower the community as a whole,” Parker said. “And why not do it in Orange Mound where it has such a rich history in the Memphis area?”

The academy partnered with TONE and Urban Art Commission to include the works of local artists within the facility. One of these artists is Juan Rojo, who heard about the opportunity for artists’ work to be included through UAC.

“It was an open call for proposals for murals through the Urban Art Commission, so I applied for that,” Rojo said.

His colorful mural includes a diverse group of children in a classroom participating in creative activities under the supervision of teachers.

Rojo developed the idea for the mural by taking photographs of children who attend the academy. He was unsure if he would be able to successfully complete his mural idea for the academy.

“I didn’t know if it was going to be possible with COVID-19, but they liked the idea and helped me along the way,” Rojo said. “I went to the school for a couple of days, took hundreds of photos and made a design based on the photos.”

Through his artwork, along with the other featured artwork by Daria Davis and Sarai Payne, Rojo hopes that a strong image of community is felt by viewers.

“It’s an empowering mural that tries to empower the actual people that live in the community. It’s a positive, fun image that encourages learning,” Rojo said.

The academy also features Porter Leath’s teacher training institute the Teacher Excellence Program. Through the program, teachers at the academy have all-day access to support and training. Deaunn J. Stovall, teaching and learning manager at Porter-Leath, explained the goals of the program in the following statement:

“The Teacher Excellence Program strives to help teachers build capacity in understanding the importance of how social emotional development affects learning. TEP promotes social connections, healthy relationships and positive child, teacher, adult interactions that help to build and shape strong brains on children birth to age five years old, particularly executive function.”

The program is supported by instructional coaches and relief teachers. Instructional coaches support early education teachers through workshops and mentoring, ensuring that teachers connect with their students to the best of their ability. Relief teachers serve as a third teacher in a classroom through providing extensive knowledge and help to students and teachers. They are also able to take the role of teacher if a teacher needs to leave for professional development.

“We consider our professional development an experience. We provide staff with our research-based information, and we ensure that our sessions have their social, emotional well being in mind,” Stovall said.

Stovall hopes that when people within the Orange Mound community see Early Childhood Academy, they feel loved and that they do not have to go to any other facility across town to get the type of care the academy offers.

“I hope they see it as a beacon of hope where they can go and thrive and be a part of something awesome,” Stovall said. “They can walk in and feel welcomed, valued, seen and heard.” 

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