Memphis Lift

How one group is defying conventional wisdom on parental involvement in Memphis schools

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
Parents with Memphis Lift rally outside of Northside High School this spring to highlight the impact of school closures.

Adorning one hall of the North Memphis headquarters of Memphis Lift, photos chronicle the parent advocacy group’s meteoric rise from obscurity to influence on the city’s education landscape over the course of two years.

One snapshot captures founding executive director Sarah Carpenter posing with a public housing resident as the group canvassed its first neighborhood to show parents the data behind Memphis schools, especially those in the state’s bottom 5 percent.

Others display proclamations from Memphis Mayor Jim Strickland and several state lawmakers recognizing the group’s advocacy work in behalf of families.

As Memphis Lift prepares to mark its second anniversary this weekend with a school supply giveaway at its headquarters, it’s showing the power of parental involvement in a city that historically has struggled to engage families in public education.

With 17 employees, the organization has shepherded 200 parents through its fellowship class, teaching them how to become more effective advocates in their children’s schools. The program includes a recent inaugural cohort of Hispanic parents, a growing population that often gets lost in the complexities of the city’s increasingly splintered education landscape. The group’s rosters also boast more than a thousand parents interested in community meetings and school tours, including about 100 who have sought guidance for how to choose the best school fit for their children.

“Parent involvement has been the missing piece for decades in Memphis schools,” Carpenter said. “Parents weren’t involved and parents weren’t even educated about how to advocate for their kids. Schools shut parents out.”

In its early stages, Memphis Lift was viewed warily by some local school leaders who doubted the group’s independence because of its close relationship with Natasha Kamrani, former director of Tennessee’s branch of Democrats For Education Reform and wife of Chris Barbic, founding superintendent of the Achievement School District. The organization was a rare advocate of the state-run district as protests erupted annually over the ASD’s heavy-handed takeover of neighborhood Memphis schools beginning in 2012.

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
Memphis Lifters line up during a March rally opposing the Achievement School District’s decision to close Klondike Preparatory Academy, a charter school in north Memphis.

But the organization has increasingly shown its maverick side. This spring, members marched and protested when the ASD announced plans to close its first charter school. Klondike Preparatory Academy. And while they lobbied county commissioners last year for more funding for Shelby County Schools, they also spoke out this summer against granting an early contract extension for Dorsey Hopson, the district’s superintendent. Only weeks later, Hopson participated in the group’s monthly speaker series, drawing a warm reception as he spoke about the state of the district.

The group is funded mostly through the Memphis Education Fund, a philanthropic collaborative that seeks to support local public education, but also gets support from Bloomberg Philanthropies and the Walton Family Foundation. (Chalkbeat also receives support from local philanthropies connected to Memphis Education Fund and the Walton Family Foundation. You can learn more about our funding here.)

Carpenter spoke with Chalkbeat about the evolving scope of Memphis Lift’s work, the hurdles to parent engagement in Memphis, and the interactions with students and parents that have inspired her. (This interview was edited for clarity and brevity)

When Memphis Lift came on the scene, many people doubted its legitimacy as a grassroots organization because of its ties to the ASD and its early paid advocacy work. How would you describe your mission now?

Natasha (Karmani) was not looking for parents that had everything they needed. She was looking for real parents that had challenges in life and still have challenges — and me being one of them. Ordinary parents from communities with limited resources. When they came to me, I had seen it all. I had worked with a lot of different people that used me to get what they needed, then kicked me to the curb. Memphis Lift is not like that.

We want to make sure that when a parent walks into a school, somebody in that building drops everything and helps that parent. Because we send our best to those schools. It may not be the best to you, but it’s the best that we got, and we expect you to treat them like it’s the best that you got.

What have been the most valuable lessons Memphis Lift has learned?

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
Sarah Carpenter

Sometimes you have to pivot away from your mission statement just a little bit. Parents have underlying issues that we have also had to deal with. Many of our parents are single parents and have trouble paying bills. So we help parents find resources they need. When you deal with that, then parents are more able to advocate for their child at school. We believe a great education can help with a lot of that for the next generation. I think we have more parents now who know how to fight for a great education for their children.

We’ve also learned about building strong, meaningful relationships. We broke a key barrier by connecting with Dorsey Hopson. We don’t just deal with charter parents and ASD parents; many are parents with Shelby County Schools. Our story is so real now, they can’t help but talk to us. When Hopson came to our speaker series, people were glad to see him.

Parent engagement has been a challenge for all school systems in Memphis. What will it take for schools to increase parent involvement?

They’ve got to let parents speak their truth. They’ve got to listen to parents. We’re working with some schools that let us come in and talk to parents. Most of our complaints this past school year were about how their kids are being treated in school like bullying from teachers. Parents have found their voice to say this is not right.

But parents have to be educated on the right way to advocate for their children. We have not known how to advocate for so long. It’s hard to reach some parents to make them feel like their voice does matter.

How have you seen parents go from knowing little about their school and child’s education to becoming advocates?

I often get calls from parents telling me about how they were able to fix a problem at their child’s school because they were informed about their rights. The powers at be were so used to parents not knowing their rights and they want to keep it that way. Parents haven’t felt like they weren’t able to do these things. And now they go in the school and ask those tough questions. I don’t care if you’re (Chief of Schools) Sharon Griffin, Dorsey Hopson, (ASD Superintendent) Malika Anderson or a charter school. All you want is for kids to get what they need. And guess what? If you give them what they need, they won’t leave your school.

What solidified why you’re doing this work?

PHOTO: Memphis Lift
Sarah Carpenter meets with a parent at her public housing apartment in 2015.

Growing up hearing about Foote Homes, it was one of those places you couldn’t go. We went there. We took a team of people to Foote Homes because LaRose Elementary was on the priority list at the time. And we were asking parents the basic questions: Are you aware your children are going to a school in the state’s bottom 5 percent? Most of the parents we talked to weren’t aware.

We went there in the midst of everything. People were shooting dice and not knowing what might break out. I remember this white teacher and this little black boy were throwing a football around in the middle of the apartments and that boy was just focused on his Steacher. And that stayed in my head until today. That child was so focused on that teacher and that football to the point he didn’t care what was going on around him. And that was a moment for me.

And people were asking us, “Well if it’s a failing school, what are we going to do?” We were all new to this. We’d never done this before. And we didn’t know, but we knew we had to do something. That’s how the “choice counseling” came on board. And now parents are knocking on our door asking us to help them find their kids a great school.

Future of Schools

Chicago Schools sets community meetings on controversial school inventory report

Chicago Public Schools is hosting a dozen workshops for community members focused on a controversial report about local schools that offers an unprecedented window into the assets — and problems — in certain neighborhoods.

The district published report, called the Annual Regional Analysis, in September. It shows that, in many areas of the city, students are skipping out on nearby options, with less than half of district students attending their designated neighborhood schools.

The school district and Kids First, the school-choice group that helped compile the report, maintain that the analysis is meant to help guide investments and empower communities to engage in conversations about their needs.

The report divides the school district into 16 “planning regions” showing where schools are, what programs they offer, how they are performing, and how people choose among the options available.

The meetings will start with a presentation on the report. They will include small-group discussions to brainstorm how Chicago Schools can invest in and strengthen schools. The first workshop is scheduled for Wednesday at Collins Academy High School.

While the school district has touted the detailed report as a resource to aid planning and community engagement, several groups have criticized the document and questioned the district’s intent.  The document has sparked fears among supporters of neighborhood schools that the district might use it to propose more school closings, turnarounds, and charter schools.

The parents group Raise Your Hand, the neighborhood schools’ advocacy group Generation All, and the community organizing group Blocks Together penned a letter recently scrutinizing the report’s reliance on school ratings, which are based largely on attendance and test scores.

“Research has shown that test scores and attendance tell us more about the socioeconomic status of the students’ communities rather than the teaching and learning inside the school itself,” they wrote. Chalkbeat Chicago first reported about the analysis in August after obtaining a copy of it. Yet, the document has sparked fears among supporters of neighborhood schools that it could be used to propose more school closings, turnarounds, and charter schools.

Here’s a list of the 12 community workshops, all of which all begin at 6 p.m.:

West Side Region: Oct. 17, Collins Academy High School

Greater Lincoln Park Region: Oct. 18, Lincoln Park High School

Greater Calumet Region: Oct. 22, Corliss High School

South Side Region: Nov. 7, Lindblom High School

Greater Stony Island Region: Nov. 8, Chicago Vocational Career Academy

Far Southwest Region: Nov. 13, Morgan Park High School

Far Northwest Side Region: Nov. 14, Steinmetz High School

Greater Milwaukee Region: Nov. 15, Wells High School

Greater Stockyards Region: Nov. 19, Kelly High School

Pilsen/Little Village Region: Nov. 26, Benito Juarez Community Academy

Greater Midway Region: Dec. 6, Curie Metropolitan High School

North Lakefront Region : Dec. 11, Roger C Sullivan High School

testing questions

‘The needle hasn’t moved’: Regents sound off on racial gaps in 2018 test scores

PHOTO: Getty Images/Kali9

New York State’s top education policymakers raised concerns Monday about whether the state is doing enough to address persistent racial gaps on state exams.

The discussion was the first opportunity the Board of Regents have had to discuss the results of last school year’s reading and math tests since they were released late last month. And while the Regents seemed to be in agreement that the gaps are problematic, there was little discussion of what to do about it beyond requesting more data.

The test scores released in September show just under 35 percent of black students statewide are proficient in reading, 17 points below their white peers. In math, the gap jumps to 25 points. (The gaps are similar for Hispanic students compared with their white peers.)

The gaps are even wider in New York City.

Regent Judith Johnson, who has repeatedly criticized the state tests for not reflecting student learning across different ethnic groups, said the education department is still not doing enough to analyze the causes of racial differences in proficiency on the grades 3-8 exams. Those gaps, Johnson said, will bring down the competitiveness of the American workforce.

“It’s absolutely based on poverty and color,” Johnson said. “That has not changed and that begs for analysis at this point.”

Commissioner MaryEllen Elia acknowledged “troubling gaps” on student achievement, but also said state officials, including the Regents, have been working on it for years. She also pushed back on the idea that the tests themselves aren’t useful, arguing they draw attention to issues of inequity.

“If we didn’t have an opportunity to see this, it wouldn’t be as high up in our mindsets,” she said.

While some gaps have narrowed slightly among certain student groups, it’s happening at a glacial rate, said Regent Luis Reyes. He pointed to a two-year period where the gap between Hispanic students and their white peers shrunk by about 1 percent on both math and English tests.

“One percent is not a revolution, it’s not a reform, it’s not a transformation,” Reyes said. “It’s ice age.”

Reducing an emphasis on state tests in how officials judge overall school performance is part of the education department’s plan under the federal Every Student Succeeds Act. In coming up with school ratings, officials will consider factors such as how often students are suspended, are absent from class, and how prepared they are for life after high school.

Regent Kathy Cashin said she wants to see teaching and learning take the main stage of the state’s education agenda. “The needle hasn’t moved for minority children in decades,” she said.

Elia emphasized that the test includes an essay and that it’s not “just a multiple choice test.” And she reminded the Regents that the math and English assessments are required by the federal government, but there are options to consider performance-based testing on science exams. Elia has previously shown some interest in an alternative science test.