MEMPHIS, Tenn. — Count on Bishop Ed Stephens Jr. to always come with something fresh.

Always.

“I believe in the principle of neuroplasticity,” said Stephens, the senior pastor at Golden Gate Cathedral for the past three decades. “It works with these children.”

He’s talking about stretching the minds of children, really young ones, preschool-age kids.

“PreK is the way to really dive in and move the needle,” Stephens said. “It will begin to give — particularly children who are Black and Brown children — it will begin to give them a level field to play, ‘Because I can read!'”

For the past 18 years, Golden Gate Cathedral’s giveaway of backpacks and school supplies for children in preschool through sixth grade has been a tangible way to send families into the academic year with a little momentum. That happens again July 30 from 10 a.m.-noon in the gym at STAR Academy Charter School, 3240 James Rd.

Keeping it fresh, though, Stephens is adding something to those backpacks and school supplies — Waterford Upstart.

“It’s about setting up kids for success,” Waterford.org national spokesperson Kim Fischer said.

The partnership between Golden Gate Cathedral and Waterford.org positions parents and caregivers with children entering kindergarten in the fall of 2023 to register for Waterford Upstart, the adaptive, no-cost, at-home program used 15 minutes a day, five days a week in the year leading up to kindergarten. The program comes with a laptop computer and, if needed, internet access. Caregivers also receive phone calls from a coach offering teaching tips.

Philanthropic funding is covering 200 Waterford Upstart slots in Shelby County. Stephens wants all of them filled by the time Golden Gate’s giveaway wraps up.

“There is so much data out there,” Stephens said. “The data suggests that a lot of our children come into the education arena already two grades out of the loop.”

Rising first-grader Joseph Blackburn is not one of them.

“I’m going to be honest with you,” said Kira Blackburn, Joseph’s mom. “When he went to kindergarten, his teacher used to actually tell me that he could tell that he went to a PreK.”

Joseph, 6, did not attend a traditional, brick-and-mortar preschool.

“He just did Waterford,” said Blackburn, who lives in Memphis. “It helped give me the tools that I needed. When he did start school, they were telling me he’s so advanced for him to be in kindergarten.”

Joseph walked into kindergarten counting to 10 and recognizing colors, shapes and the alphabet, including the sounds associated with those letters, Blackburn said. His kindergarten teacher wound up tweaking the lesson plans in order to keep the kid from getting bored, she said.

“[The teacher] actually started giving him a little bit of first-grade work,” Blackburn said.

That’s the vision, Stephens said.

“I knew that if we could get them to where they could read — and I do mean reading with comprehension — then you’re good for life, whether you go on to the trade school or you go on to four-year colleges or in graduate school, et cetera. Whatever your choice of career path happens to be, you have to know how to read.”

Across the country, reading levels among young children are down. The pandemic is responsible for some of that, and it also exposed needs in the greater Memphis community, the bishop said.

“We did not know the magnitude of homes that did not even have wifi,” Stephens said. “You would think that everybody has it. Nope! Wrong, everybody does not have it.”

Blackburn didn’t. She didn’t have a computer in her home, either. Waterford Upstart filled that gap.

Memphis mom Kimberly Haynes already has snagged one of those 200 Waterford Upstart slots for her son, Jamison Miller. He’s 4 and goes to preschool at Red Robin’s Academy. She will use Waterford Upstart at home to reinforce what Jamison is learning in preschool. Haynes said the program will allow her to provide a solid academic structure for Jamison.

“When I say you gotta get creative to gain their attention, it’s from me rapping certain songs,” said Haynes, chuckling. “You have to relate to what’s going on now, current. It is very hard to teach, especially a 4-year-old.”

Blackburn said her Waterford Upstart coach enabled her to figure out her son’s learning style.

“He’s a visual learner. He grabs on to things more if it’s being shown to him, especially when it comes to math,” Blackburn said. “Sometimes, as adults, we’re thinking, ‘Why don’t they get it the way that we get it?’

“It helped me have a little bit more patience with him, because everybody doesn’t learn the same.”

Reading, writing, rapping — and Waterford.

“Give it a chance. I know it sounds like it’s too good to be true, but give it a chance and see all that it has to offer. They’ll be your biggest support when you don’t feel like you can do it,” Blackburn said. “Overall, just makes you a better parent.”

Parents and caregivers may register at WaterfordUpstart.org.