Free Pre-K!

PreK image

So you want to send your kid to preschool. Good call! Preschool, also called Pre-K, is a great way to help your child prepare for kindergarten, not only academically, but socially and emotionally as well. While state law provides for free, public school for students in kindergarten (age 5) through 12th grade, the same is not true for preschool. Most private schools offer Pre-K classes, some for children as young as 2 years old. On Memphis School Guide, you’ll find listings of any elementary schools that also offer preschool. There are also many excellent stand-alone private preschools that we don’t list that you may want to investigate.

BUT…if paying for private preschool isn’t in your budget, there may still be a way to get your child a good jump on their education. There are about 5,800 tuition-free seats in more than 200 public preschool classrooms throughout Shelby County. Whether called Pre-K and located in an elementary school, or Head Start and located outside of a school, the curriculum and requirements are the same. The only major difference between the two is that teachers in Head Start programs do not have to be certified (which doesn’t necessarily mean the quality of instruction is lower). All students in these preschools receive a free breakfast, lunch and snack daily, and all school supplies are provided. Free medical and dental check-ups are also offered.

Who Can Go to Public Preschool?

There are a few things that qualify a child for a seat in a publicly-funded preschool:

Age: The majority of PreK classrooms are for children who will be 4 years old by August 15 of the year they start school. However, there are some Head Start classrooms (which are not housed in elementary schools) that serve 3-year old children. A program called Early Head Start serves children from birth through age 3 in a handful of local centers. (For information about Early Head Start, please call Porter-Leath at 901-577-2500.)

Income: Because there are a limited number of free preschool seats, priority is given to children from disadvantaged backgrounds. Considerations include such things as your total income level and whether you receive public assistance. In order to qualify, you must be able to document your income with official tax returns, and other paperwork such as TANF or SSI statements.

School Readiness: All prospective Pre-K students are screened and students who are deemed the least prepared for kindergarten are given priority for seats. The screening is short — about 20 minutes — and covers basic things like colors and counting. To your child, the screening will seem more like a game, so there’s no need to make any special preparations for it.

Other Considerations: Other factors such as learning disabilities, challenging family situations, or being zoned to a Priority School may also give your child preference for free preschool seats.

How to Enroll

Shelby County Schools typically begins screening new students for Pre-K and Head Start classrooms in mid-March 14. To find out if your child qualifies, he/she will need to be screened and you (the parent/guardian) will go through an interview. Screenings will happen in locations throughout the community during the spring, but if you miss those, you can always call the SCS Pre-K office at 901-416-3450 to schedule a screening.

Where Will You Go to Preschool?

The SCS office will look at the school you’re zoned to and try to place your child in your zoned elementary school so that there’s continuity when he/she starts kindergarten the next year. However, there are numerous free-standing Head Start centers to which you could also be assigned. Parents can list up to three choices on the application. Students who are screened in the spring will hear about placement in early June. But if you don’t get a seat initially, don’t lose hope — they continue to pull students off the waiting list throughout the school year.

Find more info on the Shelby County Schools website.


  • For more info about applying for 3- or 4-year olds, call the SCS Early Childhood Office at 901-416-3450.
  • For more info about applying for a child 0-3 years old, call Porter-Leath at 901-577-2500.