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.

What's Your Education Story?

As the 2018 school year begins, join us for storytelling from Indianapolis educators

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy/Chalkbeat
Sarah TeKolste, right, and Lori Jenkins at a Teacher Story Slam, in April.

In partnership with Teachers Lounge Indy, Chalkbeat is hosting another teacher story slam this fall featuring educators from across the city.

Over the past couple of years, Chalkbeat has brought readers personal stories from teachers and students through the events. Some of our favorites touched on how a teacher won the trust of her most skeptical student, why another teacher decided to come out to his students, and one educator’s call to ramp up the number of students pursuing a college education.

The event, 5:30 p.m. Thursday, Sept. 13, is free and open to the public — please RSVP here.

Event details:

5:30 p.m. to 7:30 p.m.
Thursday, Sept. 13, 2018
Tube Factory artspace
1125 Cruft St., Indianapolis, IN 46203
Get tickets here and find more on Facebook

More in What's Your Education Story?

School safety

Hiring more security officers in Memphis after school shootings could have unintended consequences

PHOTO: Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post/Getty Images

Tennessee’s largest district, Shelby County Schools, is slated to add more school resource officers under the proposed budget for next school year.

Superintendent Dorsey Hopson earmarked $2 million to hire 30 school resource officers in addition to the 98 already in some of its 150-plus schools. The school board is scheduled to vote on the budget Tuesday.

But an increase in law enforcement officers could have unintended consequences.

A new state law that bans local governments from refusing to cooperate with federal immigration officials could put school resource officers in an awkward position.

Tennessee Education Commissioner Candice McQueen recently reminded school personnel they are not obligated to release student information regarding immigration status. School resource officers employed by police or sheriff’s departments, however, do not answer to school districts. Shelby County Schools is still reviewing the law, but school board members have previously gone on the record emphasizing their commitment to protecting undocumented students.

“Right now we are just trying to get a better understanding of the law and the impact that it may have,” said Natalia Powers, a district spokeswoman.

Also, incidents of excessive force and racial bias toward black students have cropped up in recent years. Two white Memphis officers were fired in 2013 after hitting a black student and wrestling her to the ground because she was “yelling and cussing” on school grounds. And mothers of four elementary school students recently filed a lawsuit against a Murfreesboro officer who arrested them at school in 2016 for failing to break up a fight that occurred off-campus.

Just how common those incidents are in Memphis is unclear. In response to Chalkbeat’s query for the number and type of complaints in the last two school years, Shelby County Schools said it “does not have any documents responsive to this request.”

Currently, 38 school resource officers are sheriff’s deputies, and the rest are security officers hired by Shelby County Schools. The officers respond and work to prevent criminal activity in all high schools and middle schools, Hopson said. The 30 additional officers would augment staffing at some schools and for the first time, branch out to some elementary schools. Hopson said those decisions will be based on crime rates in surrounding neighborhoods and school incidents.

Hopson’s initial recommendation for more school resource officers was in response to the school shooting in Parkland, Florida, that killed 17 people and sparked a wave of student activism on school safety, including in Memphis.

Gov. Bill Haslam’s recent $30 million budget boost would allow school districts across Tennessee to hire more law enforcement officers or improve building security. Measures to arm some teachers with guns or outlaw certain types of guns have fallen flat.


For more on the role and history of school resource officers in Tennessee, read our five things to know.


Sheriff’s deputies and district security officers meet weekly, said Capt. Dallas Lavergne of the Shelby County Sheriff’s Office. When the Memphis Police Department pulled their officers out of school buildings following the merger of city and county school systems, the county Sheriff’s Office replaced them with deputies.

All deputy recruits go through school resource officer training, and those who are assigned to schools get additional annual training. In a 2013 review of police academies across the nation, Tennessee was cited as the only state that had specific training for officers deployed to schools.