Memphis Lift

Memphis parent education advocacy group launches amid questions

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Memphis Lift advocates talk about their mission against the backdrop of signs protesting the state's Achievement School District.

A new parent education advocacy group announced its presence in Memphis Tuesday at a press conference held on the grounds of Foote Homes, the city’s last remaining public housing project.

Organizers of Memphis Lift said the group’s goal is to educate, engage and empower parents regarding education issues.

Also present were teachers with Shelby County Schools and district board member Stephanie Love, who expressed concerns about the group’s methods and motives.

Memphis Lift is primarily comprised of 19 Shelby County parents who attended the Public Advocacy Fellowship led last spring by Ian Buchanan, the fellowship’s deputy director and former director of community partnership for the Achievement School District.

The 10-week program trained parents in advocacy strategies and education policy.

Parents with Memphis Lift have children who are students in priority schools, or schools ranking in the state’s bottom 5 percent in academic performance. Most of the priority schools represented are part of the state-run Achievement School District or the Innovation Zone within Shelby County Schools — all of which are part of school turnaround efforts across the city.

Starting June 1, the parents canvassed Memphis neighborhoods where priority schools are located, including north Memphis, south Memphis, southeast Memphis, Raleigh, Frayser and Whitehaven. The group’s goal is to collect data from surveys with the parents, as well as engage them in conversations about priority schools and options for their children, said Johnnie Hatten, one of three directors of Memphis Lift.

“About 40 parents went through the fellowship program, and some of us wanted to keep doing more after it ended,” Hatten said. “So many parents just don’t know what’s happening to their schools or don’t know who to ask. We’ve been there, and we knew we could make a difference.”

Love, a school board member representing northwest Memphis, said she attended Tuesday’s event to ensure that the group is sharing accurate information about which schools are priority schools. “The most recent list of priority schools haven’t been released by the state yet,” Love said. “So, I’m concerned that they’re telling parents their schools may be taken over when that’s not the case.”

DIstrict school board member Stephanie Love speaks with concerned teachers.
PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Shelby County Schools Board of Education member Stephanie Love (center) speaks with concerned teachers.

Group leaders said they were working off of the state website’s list of 2014-2015 priority schools, including 59 schools in Memphis.

Memphis Lift advocates said they knocked on more than 4,000 doors and spoke with about 1,100 parents. For their efforts, they received an hourly stipend of $12 to $15 and typically worked five hours a day, five days a week. Hatten said the group’s fundraising efforts have been aided by Strategy Redefined, a Nashville-based public relations consultant group.

Though research shows that more parental involvement benefits student learning, engaging parents in low-income neighborhoods has long been a challenge, said Richard Gray of the Annenberg Institute for School Reform at Brown University.

“We’ve seen that parents in these neighborhoods tend to trust and listen to other parents more,” Gray said. “That’s why there’s a move to recruit and train more parents as advocates and organizers. They then go out and try to mobilize a group of parents, which is what can really impact a system.”

Connisha Bogard, a teacher at Lucy Elementary, was among a handful of district educators who attended to express concerns that the group is promoting schools within the Achievement School District, the state’s school turnaround district that has sparked neighborhood protests over its takeover methods and concerns about its schools’ early academic performance. During the event, they held up signs that read “ASD = Failure.”

Beginning this fall, the ASD will oversee 27 schools in Memphis that previously were operated by Shelby County Schools.

“We are concerned that parents are being targeted with skewed information that encourages them to go to ASD charter schools,” Bogard said, “And that the message is being sent that public schools are no longer good enough for their children.”

Memphis Lift is not on anyone’s side, Hatten said, but is trying to engage parents with facts about their schools.

“We’re not on the ASD’s side and we’re not on Shelby County’s side,” Hatten said. “We just want parents to get engaged and have all the information they need to make decisions.”

At Tuesday’s event, Hatten and other advocates presented data points and announced that they would hold another press conference in a month. According to their survey data, 56 percent of the parents canvassed weren’t aware that their student’s school ranked in the state’s bottom 5 percent.

“We will continue canvassing and collecting information from parents,” Hatten said. “We wanted to let Memphis know who we are and that we’re here to stay.”

Editor’s note: Adds new information in new paragraphs 12-13.

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Memphis parent advocacy group trains first Spanish-speaking cohort

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Manuela Martinez (center left) and Lidia Sauceda (center right) are among 19 parents in the first Spanish-speaking class of Memphis Lift’s Public Advocate Fellowship.

Manuela Martinez doesn’t want Spanish-speaking families to get lost in the fast-changing education landscape in Memphis as the city’s Hispanic population continues to grow.

The mother of two students is among 19 parents in the first Spanish-speaking class of Memphis Lift’s Public Advocate Fellowship, a program that trains parents on local education issues.

“We want to be more informed,” said Martinez, whose children attend Shelby County Schools. “I didn’t know I had much of voice or could change things at my child’s school. But I’m learning a lot about schools in Memphis, and how I can be a bigger part.”

More than 200 Memphians have gone through the 10-week fellowship program since the parent advocacy group launched two years ago. The vast majority have been African-Americans.

The first Spanish-speaking cohort is completing a five-week program this month and marks a concerted effort to bridge racial barriers, said Sarah Carpenter, the organization’s executive director.

“Our mission is to make the powerless parent powerful …,” she said.

The city’s mostly black public schools have experienced a steady growth in Hispanic students since 1992 when only 286 attended the former Memphis City Schools. In 2015, the consolidated Shelby County Schools had 13,816 Hispanic children and teens, or 12.3 percent of the student population.

Lidia Sauceda came to Memphis from Mexico as a child; now she has two children who attend Shelby County Schools. Through Memphis Lift, she is learning about how to navigate Tennessee’s largest district in behalf of her family.

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Hispanic parents attend a training with the Memphis Lift fellowship program.

“Latinos are afraid of talking, of standing up,” Sauceda said. “They’re so afraid they’re not going to be heard because of their legal status. But I will recommend this (fellowship) to parents. How do we want our kids to have a better education if we can’t dedicate time?”

The training includes lessons on local school options, how to speak publicly at a school board meeting, and how to advocate for your children if you believe they are being treated unfairly.

The first fellowship was led by Ian Buchanan, former director of community partnership for the state-run Achievement School District. Now the program is taught in-house, and the Spanish-speaking class is being led this month by Carmelita Hernandez, an alumna.

“No matter what language we speak, we want a high-quality education for our kids just like any other parent,” Hernandez said. “A good education leads to better opportunities.”

Stopping summer slide

On National Summer Learning Day, Memphis takes stock of programs for kids

PHOTO: Helen Carefoot
Torrence Echols, a rising first-grader in Memphis, builds a tower with giant legos at the Benjamin L. Hooks Library on National Summer Learning Day.

When it comes to summer learning, it’s been a better year for Memphis, where a range of new programs have helped to stem learning loss that hits hard in communities with a high number of low-income students.

On Thursday, Mayor Jim Strickland celebrated that work in conjunction with National Summer Learning Day and against the backdrop of the children’s reading room of the city’s main library.

He estimated that 10,000 children and teens are being reached this summer through learning programs spearheaded through Shelby County Schools, Literacy Mid-South, Memphis Public Libraries, churches and nonprofit organizations across the community.

That’s a record-breaking number, Strickland says, in a city with a lot of students struggling to meet state and local reading targets.

Summer learning loss, also known as summer slide, is the tendency for students to lose some of the knowledge and skills they gained during the school year. It’s a large contributor to the achievement gap, since children from low-income families usually don’t get the same summer enrichment opportunities as their more affluent peers. Compounded year after year, the gap widens to the point that, by fifth grade, many students can be up to three years behind in math and reading.

But this summer for the first time, Shelby County Schools offered summer learning academies across the city for students most in need of intervention. And Memphis also received a slice of an $8.5 million state grant to provide summer literacy camps at nine Memphis schools through Tennessee’s Read to be Ready initiative.

Literacy Mid-South used Thursday’s event to encourage Memphians to “drop everything and read!”

The nonprofit, which is providing resources this summer through about 15 organizations in Greater Memphis, is challenging students to log 1,400 minutes of summertime reading, an amount that research shows can mitigate learning loss and even increase test scores.

Reading is a problem for many students in Memphis and across Tennessee. Less than a third of third-graders in Shelby County Schools read on grade level, and the district is working to boost that rate to 90 percent by 2025 under its Destination 2025 plan.

The city of Memphis, which does not fund local schools, has made Memphis Public Libraries the focal point of its education work. This summer, the library is offering programs on everything from STEM and robotics to art and test prep.

Parents are a critical component, helping their kids to take advantage of books, programs and services that counter the doldrums of summer learning.

Soon after the mayor left the Benjamin L. Hooks Library on Thursday, Tammy Echols arrived with her son, Torrence, a rising first-grader at Levi Elementary School. Echols said they visit regularly to read books and do computer and math games.

“We always do a lot of reading and we’re working on learning sight words,” Echols said as she watched her son build a tower out of giant Lego blocks. “Torrence is a learning child and it’s easy to forget what you just learned if you’re not constantly reinforcing.”

You can find summer learning resources for families from the National Summer Learning Association.