Earlier this month, 21 Memphis parents and grandparents stood on a stage in front of an auditorium packed with Teach For America alumni in Washington, D.C.
In matching orange shirts emblazoned with the words “Straight Outta Memphis,” the group delivered synchronized chants such as “Fired up! Ready to go!” and “We are parents with attitude!”
All members of the advocacy group Memphis Lift, the Memphians had traveled to Washington to attend Teach For America’s 25th anniversary celebration.
That’s a long way from the Memphis public housing project where the group launched last June with only 19 parents. It has since grown to more than 200 parents and grandparents of Memphis students.
Proclaiming that its mission is to educate, engage and empower parents on education issues, the group has become a strong supporter of the state-run Achievement School District, also known as the ASD. It’s dispatched representatives to the capitals of both the state and the nation to protest the state of Memphis schools.
Speaking to Teach For America teachers and alumni in Washington, Memphis Lift members compared their hometown’s low-performing schools to a form of slavery and said they are mobilizing parents to demand better schools.
“As a parent outreach organization, it is our mission to educate, engage and empower our city’s priority parents … and eliminate the high number of students who attend priority schools,” said organizer Elijah Sledge to the D.C. crowd, with fellow parents chiming in.
This week in Nashville, members met with state lawmakers and urged against supporting bills that would curtail the ASD. Most of those bills have been pulled from consideration this year.
The ASD came under fire from some state lawmakers, community leaders and parents in Memphis in December after a Vanderbilt University study suggested its turnaround efforts were not as noticeably effective as Shelby County Schools’ Innovation Zone. Some critics also alleged that the district’s school takeover process last fall was rigged.
Memphis Lift’s agenda includes campaigning for an increase in school funding, urging that any such increase goes to classrooms and not to administrators or central offices.
“For far too long in the city of Memphis and around our country, poor people have been held back by a failing public school system,” said organizer Sarah Carpenter. “Some Republicans don’t want to increase school funding. Some Democrats care more about protecting systems and administrator jobs than they do about protecting children. We are here to demand that our schools work for us.”
Memphis Lift’s founding parents received advocacy training by Ian Buchanan, the ASD’s former director of community partnerships. Last summer, they were paid $12 to $15 an hour to knock on doors and raise awareness about local schools’ low test scores, drawing some criticism that the participants were motivated more by money than by conviction. Johnnie Hatten, a co-director of Memphis Lift, said the group was financially supported in part by Strategy Redefined, a Nashville-based public relations consultant group.
Some in Memphis’ education community, such Shelby County school board member Stephanie Love, have charged that the organization is directed by the agendas of organizations based outside of Memphis such as Teach For America.
Natasha Kamrani, director of Tennessee’s branch of Democrats For Education Reform and wife of founding ASD superintendent Chris Barbic, introduced the group to attendees of the TFA reunion, stating she was lucky to work with them.
You can watch Teach For America’s video of Memphis Lift’s visit to Washington here: