national draw

Memphis nonprofits are sharing what they know about students, and the shift is seen as paying off

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Memphis is the home of most of the Achievement School District's turnaround work.

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.”

Raise your voice

Memphis, what do you want in your next school superintendent?

PHOTO: Kyle Kurlick for Chalkbeat

Tennessee’s largest school district needs a permanent leader. What kind of superintendent do you think Shelby County Schools should be looking for?

Now is the chance to raise your voice. The school board is in the thick of finalizing a national search and is taking bids from search firms. Board members say they want a leader to replace former superintendent Dorsey Hopson in place within 18 months. They have also said they want community input in the process, though board members haven’t specified what that will look like. In the interim, career Memphis educator Joris Ray is at the helm.

Let us know what you think is most important in the next superintendent.  Select responses will be published.

Asking the candidates

How to win over Northwest Side voters: Chicago aldermen candidates hone in on high school plans

PHOTO: Cassie Walker Burke / Chalkbeat Chicago
An audience member holds up a green sign showing support at a forum for Northwest side aldermanic candidates. The forum was sponsored by the Logan Square Neighborhood Association.

The residents filing into the auditorium of Sharon Christa McAuliffe Elementary School Friday wanted to know a few key things from the eager aldermanic candidates who were trying to win their vote.

People wanted to know which candidates would build up their shrinking open-enrollment high schools and attract more students to them.

They also wanted specifics on how the aldermen, if elected, would coax developers to build affordable housing units big enough for families, since in neighborhoods such as Logan Square and Hermosa, single young adults have moved in, rents have gone up, and some families have been pushed out.

As a result, some school enrollments have dropped.

Organized by the Logan Square Neighborhood Association, Friday’s event brought together candidates from six of the city’s most competitive aldermanic races. Thirteen candidates filled the stage, including some incumbents, such as Aldermen Proco “Joe” Moreno (1st  Ward), Carlos Ramirez-Rosa (35th Ward), and Milly Santiago (31st Ward).

They faced tough questions — drafted by community members and drawn at random from a hat — about bolstering high school enrollment, recruiting more small businesses, and paving the way for more affordable housing.

When the audience members agreed with their positions, they waved green cards, with pictures of meaty tacos. When they heard something they didn’t like, they held up red cards, with pictures of fake tacos.

Red cards weren’t raised much. But the green cards filled the air when candidates shared ideas for increasing the pull of area open-enrollment high schools by expanding dual-language programs and the rigorous International Baccalaureate curriculum.

Related: Can a program designed for British diplomats fix Chicago schools? 

“We want our schools to be dual language so people of color can keep their roots alive and keep their connections with their families,” said Rossana Rodriguez, a mother of a Chicago Public Schools’ preschooler and one of challengers to incumbent Deb Mell in the city’s 33rd Ward.  

Mell didn’t appear at the forum, but another candidate vying for that seat did: Katie Sieracki, who helps run a small business. Sieracki said she’d improve schools by building a stronger feeder system between the area’s elementary schools, which are mostly K-8, and the high schools.

“We need to build bridges between our local elementary schools and our high schools, getting buy-in from new parents in kindergarten to third grade, when parents are most engaged in their children’s education,” she said.

Sieracki said she’d also work to design an apprenticeship program that connects area high schools with small businesses.

Green cards also filled the air when candidates pledged to reroute tax dollars that are typically used for developer incentives for school improvement instead.

At the end of the forum, organizers asked the 13 candidates to pledge to vote against new tax increment financing plans unless that money went to schools. All 13 candidates verbally agreed.

Aldermen have limited authority over schools, but each of Chicago’s 50 ward representatives receives a $1.32 million annual slush fund that be used for ward improvements, such as playgrounds, and also can be directed to education needs. And “aldermanic privilege,” a longtime concept in Chicago, lets representatives give the thumbs up or down to developments like new charters or affordable housing units, which can affect school enrollment.

Related: 7 questions to ask your aldermanic candidates about schools

Aldermen can use their position to forge partnerships with organizations and companies that can provide extra support and investment to local schools.

A January poll showed that education was among the top three concerns of voters in Chicago’s municipal election. Several candidates for mayor have recently tried to position themselves as the best candidate for schools in TV ads.