The local conversation about how to help students succeed got a boost last week as hundreds of people invested in that question descended on Memphis to learn how to work together better.

More than 400 people attended a national conference hosted by StriveTogether, a group working to get nonprofits in the same cities to share their knowledge,  and Seeding Success, which is leading that work locally.

A top StriveTogether official told Chalkbeat earlier this year that Memphis would host the annual conference because the city is seen as an emerging “proof-point community” — a place where the organization’s theory of change is likely to play out.

That theory, in a nutshell: Many cities have lots of well intentioned nonprofits tackling important issues related to children’s academic success. But each operates independently, with the information it learns about children and the effort it makes to help them staying out of view of the other groups. By sharing that information and engaging in what Strive calls “collective action,” the groups can help children more effectively, and faster.

That’s beginning to happen locally in new ways. In one early initiative, Seeding Success helped local nonprofits stop students from falling behind during the summer by embedding literacy classes into summer camps. Data-sharing allowed the groups to tailor literacy intervention to their own students, rather than treating all students as if they were on the same reading level.

Seeding Success has also emphasized attendance, recently partnering with the NBA’s Memphis Grizzlies and Shelby County Schools to kick off a campaign aimed at combating chronic absenteeism.

The work is now spreading to early childhood, where Seeding Success is working alongside other Memphis organizations to create an early childhood education plan. Conference attendees were eager to learn how local efforts to share data about young children are being funded and sustained.

Mark Sturgis, executive director of Seeding Success, fields questions on their role with Shelby County's early childhood education plan.
PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Mark Sturgis, executive director of Seeding Success, fields questions on their role with Shelby County’s early childhood education plan.

“Memphis has made a lot of progress,” Jeff Edmondson, StriveTogether’s managing director, told Chalkbeat. (StriveTogether and Chalkbeat share a board member, Sue Lehmann.)

“Not to use data as a hammer to beat people up,” Edmondson said, “but to identify what services are really impactful, identify which kids need those services, and make sure that they’re readily accessible, so it’s not just left to random chance that a child or his or her family might find them — they’re right there.”

Data-sharing is proving to be Seeding Success’s biggest attraction, according to the head of one group that participates.

“We joined Seeding Success out of an abounding need for a significant partner in data collection,” said Sonja Branch, Memphis director of Communities in Schools, which works on preventing students from dropping out. “Most of the organizations in this city have been driven by data, but in our own silos. This brings us together to share what we know.”

She said it had been powerful to hear about what similar groups were doing around the nation.

“It’s exciting to be able to learn from others around the nation, but it’s also just great to show off Memphis,” Branch said. “It’s time for everyone to tune in.”