The Rev. Brandon Walker felt a tug on his heart as he and the Rev. DeAndre Brown moved among the children at Ross Elementary School on Tuesday. The two pastors were on hand to draw the public's attention to the "positive impact of high-quality early education."
"I am a product of Head Start and I personally know the value of an early education," Pastor Walker told The New Tri-State Defender. "Looking at the faces of the students in Mrs. Renita Armstrong's pre-kindergarten class was second to none. I listened as they told me what they wanted to be when they grow up. Some said police officers, others said doctors, and one African-American boy said he wanted to be the president of the United States."
As he left the classroom, something came to Walker's mind.
"No one in the room said they wanted to be unemployed, homeless, on drugs, or locked up in prison," recalled Walker of Shepherding the Next Generation-Shelby County. "No one desires to be in any of those situations, but yet the research shows those are the harsh realities of many who did not have access to a high-quality pre-k program with a high-quality teacher."
Representing more than 100 faith leaders across Shelby County who are members of the nonprofit Shepherding the Next Generation, Walker and Brown called on state and local policymakers to maintain and increase investments in high-quality pre-kindergarten programs.
At a press conference, the two pastors were joined by Sam O'Bryant, a Community Engagement Manager with the Memphis City Schools Foundation, and Laura McNary, a TEM 5 Professional teacher, who teaches kindergarten at Ross Elementary School.
Following the remarks, the pastors read to children in three of the pre-k classrooms.
"Long-term studies show that at-risk children who attend high-quality pre-kindergarten are more likely than non-participants to succeed in school, go to college, be married and be employed," said O'Bryant.
The pastors acknowledged that many Tennessee parents face challenges raising their children.
"Many families may lack resources, knowledge, or a spouse's support to raise their children towards lives of health, opportunity and values," said Rev. Brown, director of Memphis ministry Lifeline to Success. "One way to strengthen those families and transform lives is through high-quality pre-kindergarten."
Walker thanked the Shelby County school board for embracing pre-kindergarten.
"It's a tremendous initiative that we wholeheartedly appreciate, and we want to see that commitment fulfilled. We urge state and local policymakers to continue to make the funding available for low-income kids throughout Tennessee so they, too, can reap the rewards of pre-k."
Quality pre-k and quality teachers go hand-in-hand, said Walker.
"In order for pre-k to have a positive impact, it must be a high-quality program, which means highly effective teachers throughout the grades," he said.
"So we support the county's new school board in moving forward with efforts to have most effective teachers in every pre-k to 12 classroom, and we celebrate those teachers, which is why we are here today."
NOTE: Shepherding the Next Generation-Shelby County, formerly called Clergy United for the Memphis Schools, is a project of Shepherding the Next Generation, a national group of pastors and ministry leaders committed to speaking out on behalf of children at risk.