rebranding

Seeing needs beyond good teachers, Teacher Town Memphis changes its approach and its name

PHOTO: Marta W. Aldrich
Offices for Teacher Town collaborators are housed in a downtown Memphis building that was secured soon after the organization's founding in 2014. The newly named Memphis Education Fund will move its headquarters next spring to Crosstown Concourse in Midtown.

A Memphis philanthropic collaborative is revising its public image as its leaders rethink the ways they want to help the city’s schools change.

Teacher Town is becoming the Memphis Education Fund and adopting the goal of improving the lowest-scoring 10 percent of schools in the city, the group announced this month.

The collaborative was created in 2014 by Memphis education leaders with local philanthropists. The goal was to transform Memphis into a destination city for talented teachers, a vision that built on a major investment by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to improve teaching in the city.

But as those efforts unfolded, Teacher Town leaders realized that hiring and training new teachers alone would not transform local schools.

“There is a strong correlation between great schools and great school leadership,” said Marcus Robinson, who recently became the organization’s first full-time CEO. “If we are serious about recruiting and retaining the most talented teachers, we have to be equally committed to developing the principals and central office administrators they need to coach, support, and motivate them.”

In response, the group decided to broaden its causes to include training principals, supporting Shelby County Schools’ efforts to improve some of the district’s lowest-performing schools, and engaging the community in school improvement efforts.

Now, the fund is in the middle of spending $10 million to help Shelby County Schools overhaul struggling schools through its Innovation Zone. It’s also giving money to help schools in the state-run Achievement School District serve students with disabilities.

Other grants have gone to organizations that help to train principals or work to engage families in school improvement efforts. The fund’s website lists 22 local and national organizations receiving support, including the parent organizing groups Memphis Lift and Stand for Children Tennessee.

Rather than holding money on its own, the fund identifies grantees and then works with donors to support them directly. The money is managed by the Community Foundation of Greater Memphis, a nonprofit organization overseeing about a thousand charitable funds.

A 2014 report in The Stanford Social Innovation Review lists three of the city’s leading philanthropies — the Hyde Family, Poplar and Pyramid Peak foundations — among the fund’s founders. The organization does not publish a list of its current donors, some of whom prefer to remain anonymous, Robinson said.

Marcus Robinson is former CEO of Tindley Accelerated Schools in Indianapolis.
PHOTO: Matt Detrich/The Indianapolis Star
Memphis Education Fund CEO Marcus Robinson is former CEO of Tindley Accelerated Schools in Indianapolis.

(Disclosure: Hyde and Pyramid Peak also support Chalkbeat. Learn about our funding here. Chalkbeat also rents office space in Teacher Town Commons, a working space where the fund’s leaders and many of its partners keep offices.)

Similar funds in other cities sometimes take a narrower approach. Chicago’s education fund tackles one issue at a time, right now focusing on issues related to principals, for example. Memphis is trying to tackle multiple issues at one time, Robinson said.

“Memphis is trying to improve education quality at a different scale,” he said. “Our work is commensurate with the kinds of ideas happening in Shelby County.”

leadership matters

Meet the leader behind one Memphis school’s Blue Ribbon success

PHOTO: Shelby County Schools
Principal Yolanda Heidelberg celebrates during a schoolwide event in November at Jackson Elementary, one of two Memphis schools honored as a 2016 National Blue Ribbon School.

In many ways, Jackson Elementary School is an anomaly in Memphis.

In a district in which more than 78 percent of students are black, 71 percent of Jackson Elementary’s students are Hispanic. And more than 99 percent of its students come from poor families, much higher than the district average. Yet its most recent state test scores outpaced Shelby County Schools in most every subject, earning Jackson Elementary a 2016 Blue Ribbon designation by the U.S. Department of Education for closing the performance gap between poor and minority students and their more affluent and white peers.

To insiders, Jackson is known affectionately as Heidelberg University, named in honor of the school’s inspirational leader.

As principal of the 350-student school, Yolanda Heidelberg fosters an all-hands-on-deck attitude that creates a vibrant learning environment for both students and teachers.

Parents volunteer in preparation for Jackson Elementary School's annual Hispanic heritage festival.
PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
Parents volunteers decorate for the school’s annual Hispanic heritage festival.

“We’re a family school,” Heidelberg said. That, in turn, trickles down to interactions with parents, who frequently pack the auditorium for parent meetings.

The confidence that Heidelberg exudes is a far cry from how she felt when interviewing for the job in 2001. At the time, Hispanics made up less than a quarter of the school’s enrollment. But district leaders expected the composition to change dramatically as more Hispanic families moved into the neighborhood. Heidelberg was asked if she spoke Spanish and had to answer no.

“I was frightened by that because I wasn’t sure I could help,” Heidelberg recalls of eventually landing the job. “But that became my greatest strength.”

Her lack of knowledge about serving English language learners drove Heidelberg to dive into research on how to help her incoming students feel welcome and flourish academically.

And it worked.

Jackson ES in Memphis
PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
Hispanic students comprise 71 percent of the school’s student population, much higher than the district average.

In 2012, Jackson Elementary was named a state Reward School for achieving top growth rates in scores across multiple years. In 2015, the most recent year for which standardized test scores are available, nearly 60 percent of students scored proficient or advanced in state math tests and nearly 70 percent in science. About 40 percent of students did the same in reading.

The school’s success can be traced to Heidelberg’s persona, leadership, coaching and resourcefulness, according to faculty members.

When she was unable to get the former Memphis City Schools to provide translation services to produce literature for parents, Heidelberg found help from the Memphis Police Department. Those services came in handy when she needed content translated for event programs, marquees and even the school’s website.

“I never wanted language to be a barrier for us. … I never want language to hinder our progress,” she said.

Heidelberg also works with area churches and businesses that provide volunteer tutors for Jackson’s after-school programs.

Yolanda Heidelberg's favorite place at Jackson Elementary School: the Wall of Fame that displays former students who have gone on to college.
PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
Heidelberg’s Wall of Fame celebrates former students who have gone on to college.

The focus on academics is clear when entering the school, where a prominent display celebrates former students who have gone on to college.

Among staff, teamwork and collaboration are viewed as school values.

Strategies used by teachers of English language learners are often found in mainstream classrooms. Classroom teachers work closely with ELL teachers to plan lessons and skew work toward visuals. To show their mastery of a topic, students can do presentations and projects that aren’t text-heavy but still build language skills.

“We work really hard together — meeting kids where they’re at,” said Charnisha Phipps, a third-grade teacher.

“What sets us apart is that we’re not in competition with each other. We operate as one unit,” adds Lavonda Brown, who teaches fifth grade. “Here we share. We build on each other’s strengths.”

Carla Wilson teaches English language learners but she still attends classroom teacher meetings, for instance, and sometimes steps in other classrooms to offer extra support. “Just because I’m an ESL teacher doesn’t mean I’m only going to be doing that. We go in and do whatever needs to be done,” she said.

The culture is apparent in the front office too, where students and parents vote each month for a “star” staff member. The prize? A lunch out with Heidelberg — and a half day off.

For Heidelberg, the prize is the National Blue Ribbon award, shared this year with 278 other public schools across the nation. While there’s no material benefit, the designation is viewed as a badge of honor in education.

“This is just a validation of the hard work we’ve done over the years,” she said. “It’s finally being recognized.”

charter lineup

Tennessee’s ASD soon will lose one of its first charter school networks, but others say they’re still in the game

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Achievement School District Superintendent Malika Anderson speaks to parents and teachers in November at Humes Preparatory Academy Middle School, which will lose its charter operator at the end of the school year.

This fall’s surprise announcement that Gestalt Community Schools is leaving Tennessee’s school turnaround district doesn’t appear to be a bellwether for other charter networks operating in the Achievement School District.

Of the state’s 13 charter operators, half that spoke with Chalkbeat said they have no plans to exit the ASD. And several are open to expanding under the state-run district, which oversees 33 schools in Memphis and Nashville.

“Aspire is focused on growing in Memphis,” said Allison Leslie, Memphis superintendent for the California-based network, which operates three schools in the city and tried last year to add a fourth.

Leaders for Capstone Education Group and Frayser Community Schools said their Memphis-based networks also would like to expand under the ASD. Capstone wants to grow from three to five schools in Memphis by 2021, while Frayser Community Schools, now with one school, has expressed interest in managing the two that Gestalt will leave behind.

Other operators characterize Gestalt’s decision as an outlier rooted mostly in enrollment challenges in North Memphis. The network had sought to turn around two low-performing schools in an area where the city’s population of school-age children had hollowed out in recent years.

Gestalt Community Schools was one of the first charter networks to join Tennessee’s turnaround district that launched in 2012; now it will be the first to depart. Leaders of the Memphis-based network announced plans in October to pull out at the end of this school year. CEO Yetta Lewis blamed chronic under-enrollment, exacerbated by a state-imposed cap on out-of-zone enrollment for ASD schools. Gestalt will continue to operate five other Memphis charter schools authorized by Shelby County Schools.


Read our Q&A with Gestalt Community Schools CEO Yetta Lewis about why Gestalt is leaving the ASD and lessons learned.


The work has been hard for ASD charter operators tasked with taking schools in the state’s bottom 5 percent and turning them around in five years — a goal that ASD leaders now acknowledge was unrealistic.

Created in 2010 with the help of federal Race to the Top funding, the ASD recruited and incentivized charter networks to join its portfolio of schools and granted them broad discretion in hiring, curriculum, instruction and budgeting. But especially in Memphis, charter leaders have grappled with high student mobility, extreme poverty, a lack of shared resources, barriers to school choice, and on-the-ground opposition in communities with intense loyalty to neighborhood schools.

Like schools statewide, charters also have had to deal with the void in state test scores in 2015-16 due to Tennessee’s cancellation last spring of its new TNReady assessment for K-8 students. The bumpy testing transition prompted ASD Superintendent Malika Anderson to halt takeovers of low-performing schools for one year.

Enrollment has been another challenge. Gestalt has not been alone in that struggle, but its two ASD schools — Klondike Elementary and Humes Middle — suffered some of the district’s largest enrollment losses: about 13 percent of their student population in the last year.

“We keep trying something new or different but came to realize that over the last four years, people have moved pretty steadily out of North Memphis,” Lewis said.

With a limited pool of high-quality national charter networks, the ASD is working to cultivate more local operators to be part of its future expansion. This fall, the district kicked off a series of trainings in Memphis and Nashville, inviting community leaders to learn about the basics of charter schooling in Tennessee and how to create schools through the ASD.

Chalkbeat reporter Laura Kebede contributed to this story.