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

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.