Tent City

Here’s the optional school that has Memphis parents camping out in January

PHOTO: Micaela Watts
Tents line the grounds outside of Shelby County Schools' central office in Memphis, where parents camp out every January to apply for select optional schools.

Bundled up in coats, hats and gloves and sitting in a circle around a portable heater, parents Ginger Lord, Sandra Yarbrough and Teresa Starling explained what is motivating them to camp outside of Shelby County Schools’ headquarters building for six days amid freezing temperatures, rain, snow and hail.

Sandra Yarbrough (left) speaks with other parents holding their spot at this year's "tent city."
PHOTO: Micaela Watts
Sandra Yarbrough (left) speaks with other parents holding spots at this year’s “tent city.”

The first in line on Wednesday to apply for the district’s optional schools next Monday, all three are seeking a spot for their children in the Maxine Smith STEAM Academy, a 2-year-old optional middle school that has become the school of choice for families seeking a high-achievement public education for their kids in Memphis.

“There’s 50 spots for sixth grade at STEAM for students outside of the district,” explains Yarbrough of Cordova, a Memphis bedroom community that lies outside of the school’s zone. “They can’t guarantee me I’ll get a spot. There were over 1,300 parents here last year. So, I’m third in line. You gotta do what you gotta do.”

Shelby County Schools offers 47 optional schools and programs, each with theme-based learning designed to fit children’s needs and interests in a district known primarily for low-performing schools.

Every year for the last decade or so, parents have camped on the central office lawn during the week before optional school applications are distributed in order to secure a spot for their children. The hot schools vary from year to year. Among them have been White Station Middle, Grahamwood Elementary and Snowden Middle — all with academic programs that put kids on the college prep track.

This year, the hot school is Maxine Smith STEAM Academy for grades 6-8, which offers an emphasis on science, technology, engineering, the arts and math. The school has a partnership with Christian Brothers University, a highly regarded Catholic school in midtown Memphis, and each student is issued an electronic tablet as part of the school’s blended learning program. There are rigorous honors courses, and students must have mostly As and Bs and score at or above the 65th percentile on state achievement tests to be eligible to attend.

The district created the school two years ago to increase options for parents seeking high-performing middle schools with a STEM focus.

“Parents have told me that they’re hearing about how great STEAM is at their workplaces, or their church. They’re hearing about STEAM in their communities,” said Linda Sklar, director of optional schools.

She adds that STEAM has a reputation as a small school with exceptional teachers and a strong principal, Lischa Brooks.

It’s enough motivation for parents like Lord, Yarbrough and Starling to endure wet and cold weather and make arrangements for a six-day campout in the middle of Memphis.

As the first parents in line, they have certain responsibilities, including keeping a roll of all parents who are camping out before district officials hand out applications with numbered bar codes beginning at 6:30 a.m. next Monday. About 30 parents were already on the rolls for this year’s “tent city” by Thursday.

Each year, parents complain that there’s got to be a better system. And each year, district administrators assure them that there is. They say camping out isn’t necessary.

“I know at this point, it’s almost a type of tradition,” Superintendent Dorsey Hopson said during a school board meeting on Tuesday. “But the data suggests there’s no need to camp out.”

Last January, Sklar said, “99.9 percent of the 2,717 people that applied on the first day were able to get in a school of their choice, if their child met the requirements.”

She offers that message every year when she talks with parents camping out. “And they tell me, ‘Linda, if you can hand me a letter saying my kid is approved, then I’ll go home.’ And of course, I can’t do that,” she said.

Principal Lischa Brooks meets with parents during an open house this week at Maxine Smith STEAM Academy.
PHOTO: Micaela Watts
Principal Lischa Brooks meets with parents during an open house this week at Maxine Smith STEAM Academy.

Next school year, Maxine Smith STEAM Academy will have 100 openings for sixth-grade students. Fifty spots are reserved for students who live within 2 miles of the school; the rest for those who live beyond that radius.

Parents say they don’t know what a solution to camping out would look like, but it might be to develop more high-quality schools like STEAM.

“The best way would be for every child to have the same quality of education,” said Elizabeth Manoah, camping out to get her son in STEAM. “For people to have to wait in order for their child to get a quality school, … that’s not right.”

defensor escolar

Memphis parent advocacy group trains first Spanish-speaking cohort

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Manuela Martinez (center left) and Lidia Sauceda (center right) are among 19 parents in the first Spanish-speaking class of Memphis Lift’s Public Advocate Fellowship.

Manuela Martinez doesn’t want Spanish-speaking families to get lost in the fast-changing education landscape in Memphis as the city’s Hispanic population continues to grow.

The mother of two students is among 19 parents in the first Spanish-speaking class of Memphis Lift’s Public Advocate Fellowship, a program that trains parents on local education issues.

“We want to be more informed,” said Martinez, whose children attend Shelby County Schools. “I didn’t know I had much of voice or could change things at my child’s school. But I’m learning a lot about schools in Memphis, and how I can be a bigger part.”

More than 200 Memphians have gone through the 10-week fellowship program since the parent advocacy group launched two years ago. The vast majority have been African-Americans.

The first Spanish-speaking cohort is completing a five-week program this month and marks a concerted effort to bridge racial barriers, said Sarah Carpenter, the organization’s executive director.

“Our mission is to make the powerless parent powerful …,” she said.

The city’s mostly black public schools have experienced a steady growth in Hispanic students since 1992 when only 286 attended the former Memphis City Schools. In 2015, the consolidated Shelby County Schools had 13,816 Hispanic children and teens, or 12.3 percent of the student population.

Lidia Sauceda came to Memphis from Mexico as a child; now she has two children who attend Shelby County Schools. Through Memphis Lift, she is learning about how to navigate Tennessee’s largest district in behalf of her family.

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Hispanic parents attend a training with the Memphis Lift fellowship program.

“Latinos are afraid of talking, of standing up,” Sauceda said. “They’re so afraid they’re not going to be heard because of their legal status. But I will recommend this (fellowship) to parents. How do we want our kids to have a better education if we can’t dedicate time?”

The training includes lessons on local school options, how to speak publicly at a school board meeting, and how to advocate for your children if you believe they are being treated unfairly.

The first fellowship was led by Ian Buchanan, former director of community partnership for the state-run Achievement School District. Now the program is taught in-house, and the Spanish-speaking class is being led this month by Carmelita Hernandez, an alumna.

“No matter what language we speak, we want a high-quality education for our kids just like any other parent,” Hernandez said. “A good education leads to better opportunities.”

Stopping summer slide

On National Summer Learning Day, Memphis takes stock of programs for kids

PHOTO: Helen Carefoot
Torrence Echols, a rising first-grader in Memphis, builds a tower with giant legos at the Benjamin L. Hooks Library on National Summer Learning Day.

When it comes to summer learning, it’s been a better year for Memphis, where a range of new programs have helped to stem learning loss that hits hard in communities with a high number of low-income students.

On Thursday, Mayor Jim Strickland celebrated that work in conjunction with National Summer Learning Day and against the backdrop of the children’s reading room of the city’s main library.

He estimated that 10,000 children and teens are being reached this summer through learning programs spearheaded through Shelby County Schools, Literacy Mid-South, Memphis Public Libraries, churches and nonprofit organizations across the community.

That’s a record-breaking number, Strickland says, in a city with a lot of students struggling to meet state and local reading targets.

Summer learning loss, also known as summer slide, is the tendency for students to lose some of the knowledge and skills they gained during the school year. It’s a large contributor to the achievement gap, since children from low-income families usually don’t get the same summer enrichment opportunities as their more affluent peers. Compounded year after year, the gap widens to the point that, by fifth grade, many students can be up to three years behind in math and reading.

But this summer for the first time, Shelby County Schools offered summer learning academies across the city for students most in need of intervention. And Memphis also received a slice of an $8.5 million state grant to provide summer literacy camps at nine Memphis schools through Tennessee’s Read to be Ready initiative.

Literacy Mid-South used Thursday’s event to encourage Memphians to “drop everything and read!”

The nonprofit, which is providing resources this summer through about 15 organizations in Greater Memphis, is challenging students to log 1,400 minutes of summertime reading, an amount that research shows can mitigate learning loss and even increase test scores.

Reading is a problem for many students in Memphis and across Tennessee. Less than a third of third-graders in Shelby County Schools read on grade level, and the district is working to boost that rate to 90 percent by 2025 under its Destination 2025 plan.

The city of Memphis, which does not fund local schools, has made Memphis Public Libraries the focal point of its education work. This summer, the library is offering programs on everything from STEM and robotics to art and test prep.

Parents are a critical component, helping their kids to take advantage of books, programs and services that counter the doldrums of summer learning.

Soon after the mayor left the Benjamin L. Hooks Library on Thursday, Tammy Echols arrived with her son, Torrence, a rising first-grader at Levi Elementary School. Echols said they visit regularly to read books and do computer and math games.

“We always do a lot of reading and we’re working on learning sight words,” Echols said as she watched her son build a tower out of giant Lego blocks. “Torrence is a learning child and it’s easy to forget what you just learned if you’re not constantly reinforcing.”

You can find summer learning resources for families from the National Summer Learning Association.