It may be the middle of summer break from school, but it’s the perfect time to “talk up” Shelby County Schools and build bridges with the community, says Cynthia Alexander-Mitchell, a former principal and the district’s new director of community engagement.

Wearing a black T-shirt emblazoned with the words “ENGAGE ME” and carrying bright red bags filled with information about the school system, Alexander-Mitchell has led her “engagement team” of interns and staff members to reach out this summer to parents, students and community members in the neighborhoods where they live.

Cynthia Alexander-Mitchell
Cynthia Alexander-Mitchell

“It’s what happens after school that matters,” she said during recent stops at Wal-Mart stores and summer school programs on the north and south ends of the city. “When they see that you care deeply, they come.”

Improved community engagement is critical to the future of the beleaguered school district, which has suffered a significant drop in enrollment following the 2013 merger of Memphis City Schools with the former suburban county district. Administrators predict they will lose another 2,000 students during the upcoming school year to charter schools and surrounding municipal school systems, and a third of the district’s schools are at risk of being taken over by the state because of low test scores. Meanwhile, some school PTAs are struggling to engage parents, and teachers regularly complain of low morale.

Alexander-Mitchell, who started her new job in March, is tasked with helping to stop the hemorrhaging. Her department aims to bring parents and their children back to Shelby County Schools, which ultimately seeks to boost student test scores.

To get started, Alexander-Mitchell facilitated focus group sessions with parents, business leaders, clergy and community activists to get to the root of why so many people are frustrated and disengaged with the school system.

“People here actively want to participate. But the system isn’t clarifying where they fit in,” said Alexander-Mitchell, a former principal at Evans Elementary, assistant principal at Central High schools and the district’s former associate superintendent of academics.

The department has created an engagement kit complete with a parent resource guide, children’s books and school paraphernalia — which staff members hand out in red bags.

The appearance of 20 district representatives passing out school supplies in public places surprises most of the people they meet, including Jazzmyn Davenport, who graduated from Ridgeway High School in 2014.

“It’s perfect timing,” said Davenport, who spoke with team members at a southeast Memphis Wal-Mart. “This school district has been so divided in recent years. It’s good that they’re reaching out to us and saying, ‘We still care about you.'”

The district is also seeking to engage people through the Internet. The school system has unveiled a redesigned website that includes a section designed to help parents stay engaged with what their children’s schools are doing. It’s also launched a free app called mySCS that provides parent alerts, contact information and school lunch menus.

In addition, district employee John Best has spearheaded an online #ibelieveinscs campaign, complete with video interviews with students and employees about why they believe in Shelby County Schools.