So Much More than a Preschool

Joe Duggan, Communications

March 16, 2022

The Porter-Leath Early Childhood Academy | Frayser in Memphis, Tennessee, has constructed a model of excellence for the education of preschool children and the adults who teach them.

Central to the success of the academy in the city’s Frayser neighborhood is a 35,501-square-foot facility, which provides early education and support to nearly 250 students. With structural engineering by Olsson, every element of the building enhances the academy’s mission of enriching learning opportunities in an environment that is safe, functional, and inspiring. We joined the project through the invitation of RDG Planning and Design, which was selected to complete the architectural design of the Porter-Leath facility.

“This incredible space continues our model that brings together the very best people, programming, and partners to improve the lives of children and families,” Sean Lee, president of Porter-Leath said in a statement released shortly before the academy’s dedication.

Porter-Leath has been serving at-risk children and families in the Memphis area for 170 years and reaches more than 10,000 children each year with a variety of programs. Its network of four early childhood academies uses evidence-based methods to help every preschool child achieve kindergarten readiness.

In addition to serving children and their families, the academy at Frayser is home to the Teacher Excellence Program, a laboratory training center that helps early childhood educators obtain and develop the latest professional skills. Porter-Leath’s innovative approach includes classroom instruction, mentorship, and a team of relief teachers that schools can call on to allow staff to take time away from daily instruction for professional development.

Porter-Leath wanted the Frayser space to match their outstanding programs and people.

The child friendly facility features bright colors, floods of natural light, and distinctive tactile musical elements, all surrounded by a landscape that encourages play and exploration. The facility also draws inspiration from the history, culture, and geography of the region.

The project presented some engineering challenges for Olsson’s Structural team, which included making sure the facility adhered to the updated International Building Code (IBC) that had been adopted by Memphis and Shelby County, Tennessee. The IBC standards also required Olsson to engineer a high seismic design for the structure because Memphis is located within the New Madrid seismic zone, the most active seismic region in the U.S.

“The building features some interesting but complex geometry with the ins-and-outs of the structure and the cantilevers on the exterior,” said Cary Schroeder, senior structural engineer at Olsson who served as project manager. “It was further complicated by the seismic requirements, so it all required us to get creative.”

Olsson also helped our project partners understand the code requirements in terms of cost and schedule, so the contractor and owner would be fully prepared heading into discussions with city officials. We also completed an early design package so the contractor could purchase steel and start the permitting process as soon as possible.

Another challenge for our structural engineers involved the overall designed length of the facility. Over time, buildings expand and contract slightly with fluctuations in temperature and humidity. These expansions and contractions can have adverse effects on the overall structure and building facade. To allow for these shifts, we came up with a design that incorporates two buildings in one, separated by an expansion joint.

The COVID-19 pandemic also threw challenges at the project, including travel restrictions that required Olsson team members to do all our work virtually. But we always focused on maintaining effective communication to keep the project moving, even without a site visit.

“It’s a beautiful facility,” Cary said. “In discussions with RDG, I understand the community loves it, so ultimately, that’s what counts the most. RDG looks to create something that it is proud to put their name on, but that ultimately, the clients and the people who use it are proud to have in their community.”

Olsson has worked on additional projects with RDG, including the Omaha Early Learning Center at Kennedy Elementary and Porter-Leath Early Childhood Academy | Orange Mound.

The return on investment in high-quality early-childhood education can be substantial, as much as $4 to $9 for every dollar spent. Children who start school on track to achieve grade-level reading by the third grade are nearly five times more likely to graduate from high school, according to Porter-Leath. Because the academies also provide health interventions, screenings, and parenting services, the positive effects have been shown to carry into adulthood. Higher college graduation and employment rates, coupled with lower rates of substance abuse, are just some of the benefits identified by longitudinal research.

Improving communities by helping children and families get the services, stability, and educational support they need to succeed. That’s a model of excellence Olsson can really get behind.

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