An investment in pre-K education may help power a lifetime of health

A high-quality pre-K education has long been recognized as a way to help boost the lasting achievement of children from “the ground up.” Expanding access to pre-K not only has a strong correlation to greater educational skills and higher graduation rates but also may provide the foundation for a lifetime of better health. Additionally, pre-K may fuel greater employment opportunities with higher earnings.

At this age, the body and brain are developing at a rapid rate. Interventions like health screenings, nutrition education, increased immunizations and a supportive learning environment may have a significant impact. More than that, quality early childhood education may help lower rates of substance abuse and may lead to lower rates of chronic diseases farther along in life through improved cognitive development and self-regulation.

In Memphis, however, pre-K education was only available to a third of 4 year olds in Shelby County, and less than 50% of all new kindergarteners have met school readiness benchmarks. In addition, the cost to provide universally accessible pre-K education prohibits many communities from making the necessary investments.   

To help fill this gap, UnitedHealthcare is contributing to a multi-million-dollar investment to help expand pre-K education in Shelby County, through an innovative funding model. The program is entering its second year, serving about 1,000 low-income, pre-K students in more than 40 classrooms with targeted school readiness curriculum and wraparound services.

The program utilizes a funding model called Pay for Success, also known as outcomes financing. Organizations, like UnitedHealthcare, provide funding to the Maycomb Capital’s Community Outcomes Fund, who in turn works with local partners who have the know-how to help achieve a desired goal. In this case, it’s a coalition of community partners in Shelby County — First 8 MemphisSeeding Success and the Urban Child Institute — who have a deep desire to help improve early childhood education in the area. These partners then work with the school district to help develop quality, evidence-based pre-K programs. 

"Outcomes financing provided an opportunity for Shelby County to build a high-quality Pre-K program with more transparency and accountability,” said Dr. Kandace Thomas, executive director of First 8 Memphis. “In addition to academic achievement, our program highlights the needs of the whole family – we understand that children can best achieve when their families have access to employment and stable housing, adequate transportation, and high-quality mental health services. Our wrap-around service providers help families access what they need, which ultimately helps children thrive."

Under the Pay for Success model, the program must provide clear benchmarks and measurable results. These benchmarks include:

  • Consistent attendance
  • Improved pre-literacy skills
  • Kindergarten readiness

The city of Memphis and Shelby County then make payments if these benchmarks are met. Those dollars then repay the investors. 

“These community partners, along with the innovative investments, demonstrate the value of investing in kids on the front end, so we help them achieve lifelong health and success,” said Andy McMahon, vice president of Health and Human Services Policy at UnitedHealthcare.

In Memphis, as the program enters year two, early benchmarks have been met — and exceeded. Nearly 80% of students met or exceeded a consistent attendance benchmark — which is ahead of the project’s goals. Attendance is considered a key indicator of a child’s later educational success.

Ultimately, a Pay for Success model may help empower local organizations to set themselves up for success in early childhood education. This may translate to better support for kids who might otherwise slip through the cracks — giving them the tools to thrive and live healthier lives into adulthood.

"Pre-K is a local priority,” Dr. Thomas said. “Creating this high-quality program, which is shaped by the local community, including pre-K operators, helps ensure that Memphis has the building blocks and infrastructure to support young children's achievement and ultimately their long-term success." 

To see how we are partnering to address social determinants of health in Tennessee, visit

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