Forty-five parents gathered in the auditorium of Aspire Hanley Elementary School in Orange Mound, where John Churchill, executive director of workforce development at Southwest Tennessee Community College, described a four-week training program aimed at training the un- and underemployed and connecting them with local employers.

Parents at an informational session hosted by Aspire Hanley.
Parents at an informational session hosted by Aspire Hanley.
PHOTO CREDIT: J. Zubrzycki

The event, which was the first Churchill had run for a school’s parents, was part of Aspire Hanley’s Parent Investment Center, which aims to help students by helping meet parents’ needs.

Research shows that more parent involvement often leads to better academic outcomes for students. Students’ poverty has also been tied to academic outcomes and attainment. Hanley’s programs addresses both pieces, bringing parents into the school but also helping them access resources to improve their economic situation or address their most pressing needs.

Hanley Elementary School is in its first year as a public charter school within the Achievement School District. Aspire, a charter management group, is tasked with “transforming” the former Memphis City school, which so far has involved breaking Hanley into two smaller schools, hiring new teachers, and focusing on a ‘college for all’ curriculum.

The parent investment center is a key piece of the school’s attempt to serve this historic but economically impoverished community, said Nickalous Manning, the principal of one of Hanley’s two schools. “We’re focused on working alongside people,” he said. “We want to be part of a community that’s full of assets.”

“A school is a resource,” said Charlotte Hoyle, Aspire’s parent outreach coordinator, who runs the center. “We listen to the parents and find out what they need.”

Principal Manning, who previously worked in Memphis City Schools and ran community outreach for Aspire, said engaging with parents was particularly important for the school as its leadership changed.

A parent bulletin board marks which parents have already volunteered more than 30 hours at Aspire Hanley elementary schools.
A parent bulletin board marks which parents have already volunteered more than 30 hours at Aspire Hanley elementary schools.
PHOTO CREDIT: J. Zubrzycki

Aspire’s 37 schools require a 30-hour commitment from parents, which includes parent-teacher conferences, said Alison Leslie, Aspire’s director in Memphis. “We work with parents to make it work,” she said.

Ursula Ueal, the mother of a 4th grader, was at Aspire last Tuesday, making copies. She said the school’s warm atmosphere and the parent center led her to transfer her child from Treadwell Elementary School.

“The parents are involved and concerned,” she said. Ueal said a group of parents had worked with their state representative to get a dangerous gate on a train track near the school replaced in September.

Tinika Cradler, the parent of a 1st grader, said she was more involved at Hanley than at her child’s former school. “At previous schools it seems as though they wanted you to volunteer where they wanted you to,” she said.

Ashley Willett, the school’s librarian, said, “we have some parents who are here for hundreds of hours!”

This year, a rotating core of parents has come through the center to use computers for job searches, to learn how to help student with homework, and to figure out how to contribute to the school, Hoyle said.

Juryline Cole, a grandparent volunteer, started a clothes donation center at the school based on one that had been at Hanley in the 1960s.

While most Aspire schools have parent coordinators, “Charlotte’s program and her vision are unique,” Leslie said. “She has turned the program into a resource for the community.”

Charlotte Hoyle, center, talks with a parent and the director of Southwetern Community College's workforce development program.
Charlotte Hoyle, center, talks with Sheniqwa Avant, a parent, and John Churchill, the director of Southwetern Community College’s workforce development program.
PHOTO CREDIT: J. Zubrzycki

At Thursday’s informational session, parents were optimistic. “I hope it will give me better opportunities than what I have now,” said Sheniqwa Avant, who attended the training with her infant son.

As the presenters passed around a microphone for parents to ask about the workforce training program, Hoyle sat smiling. “It all goes together,” she said, “Parents, students, the community.”

She is already planning her next event, a session explaining the Affordable Care Act.