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.

School Choice

With another Butler lab school in the works, the north side is unofficially a magnet magnet

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy
Preschool students at School 55, which could become the second Butler lab school in Indianapolis.

Indianapolis Public Schools may open a new magnet school on the north side, a move that would further cluster sought-after programs in one of the district’s most affluent areas.

The school board heard a proposal Tuesday to convert School 55, also called Eliza Blaker, to the second lab school in collaboration with Butler University. If the board approves the plan, current students would have the choice to remain at the school, but new children would be admitted by lottery.

It would mean that in the area north of 46th Street along the College Avenue corridor — which encompasses some of the city’s most affluent neighborhoods as well as some lower income neighborhoods — every elementary school would be a magnet.

The district is making progress in a campaign to increase diversity in the most sought-after programs. But the decision to place another magnet school on the north side is likely to draw criticism from parents who would like to see them in other areas.

These schools are “concentrated,” said board member Kelly Bentley, who represents the area around School 55. “We are 80 square miles, and yet, those programs are all isolated in a less than 10 square mile area of our district.”

“We’ve got a big district out there, and there are areas that I think could really benefit from some of these programs,” she added.

Indianapolis Public Schools elementary campuses

If the IPS administration converts School 55 to magnet school, it will increase the cluster of magnet programs on north side of the district. Most elementary schools on the east, south and west sides of the district are traditional neighborhood schools.

The district currently operates School 60, which is about 3 miles south of School 55, as a lab school in collaboration with Butler. The school is open to students from across the district, but families who live nearby and children with parents who work at Butler have an advantage in the magnet lottery. As a lab school, it’s also a place where Butler education students gain on-the-ground experience through classes and as teaching assistants.

That’s one reason why the proposal calls for locating the second magnet campus on the north side: There are other locations that might be a good fit, but students from Butler need to be able to get to and from the campus for classes, said school leader Ron Smith. “A Butler lab school does need to be near enough … to make it a viable option for coursework.”

The school uses the Reggio Emilia educational philosophy. Like Montessori schools, Reggio emphasizes hands on learning and allowing students to choose what they study. School 60 has some multigrade classrooms and some that are single grades as part of the experimental approach of a lab program, which aims to test out educational ideas. It is one of the most popular schools in the district and last year, 266 applicants were placed on the waitlist.

When the Butler lab program began at School 60 about five years ago, most of the prior students were forced to leave, and the school restarted by building up from the early grades.

The new magnet dramatically altered the makeup of the school. Before the lab program began, School 60 educated a heavily black, low-income population. Nearly 92 percent of students were black, and more than 85 percent were poor enough to receive subsidized lunch. Since becoming a magnet, the school’s enrollment has transformed: Last year, 62 percent of students were white and 28 percent were eligible for subsidized meals.

But Smith said the picture is beginning to look different this year. With the help of new district admissions policies aimed at diversifying magnet schools and outreach from current parents, who have hosted events and gone door-to-door to recruit families, Smith said, the school has enrolled substantially more children of color.

If the board approves the proposal, School 55 would likely see a less dramatic shift in demographics because all of the current students would be able to remain. The campus is only about half full, so it could absorb some new students without displacing any of the current children.

The new campus could help diversify the program, said Smith: “It’s our intention that every family currently at School 55 would choose to remain as a part of the lab school program.”

blast from the past

Who is Dan Loeb? The billionaire investor that chairs Success Academy’s board has a checkered past

A screenshot taken from an American Enterprise Institute event published in 2014.

Success Academy’s board chairman and major charter school donor Daniel Loeb made headlines this month for posting a racially charged comment on Facebook that compared an African-American New York state senator with the Ku Klux Klan.

Loeb deleted the post, apologized, and left Success Academy and other charter school organizations scrambling to condemn his behavior — and explaining why he would remain on their boards.

Loeb represents a double-edged sword for charter schools. He is a wealthy and well-connected hedge fund manager, who has given millions of dollars to the charter school cause. But his actions force Success Academy CEO Eva Moskowitz and other charter leaders to make a calculation: Is his behavior a fair price to pay for the boost to their cause?

So far, they have apparently decided that it is. He has not yet been removed from Success’s board. Here are other things Eva Moskowitz has had to grapple with — which include a string of insensitive comments, but also his support for other progressive causes— as she has navigated her relationship with Loeb over the years:

He’s a nonpartisan ally — and antagonist. Loeb supports both Democrats and Republicans, and he also attacks candidates and lawmakers on both sides of the aisle. For example, he’s a major backer of New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, but he has given to Republican mayoral candidate Nicole Malliotakis and supported Mitt Romney in past presidential campaigns. At the same time, he has lashed out at both Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, often in withering and offensive terms, while also telling friends he would not vote for Donald Trump.

This isn’t the first offensive comment he’s made. Far from it, in fact. Loeb is fast-fingered on Facebook and frequently uses derogatory language to lash out at people who have made him unhappy. Here are a few of the examples that have been reported previously:

  • Another time Loeb compared the unions and their supporters to the KKK: Loeb posted the following on his Facebook page in 2016, first reported by Dealbreaker: “If you truly believe that education is the dividing line (and I concurr) then you must recognizer and take up the fight against the teachers union, the biggest single force standing in the way of quality education and an organization that has done more to perpetuate poverty and discrimination against people of color than the KKK.”
  • Using a derogatory term for people of color: Loeb once got into a fight with Fairfax Financial, a Canadian insurance company, which resulted in a lawsuit. Reported Reuters in 2011: “Fairfax’s filing quotes Loeb as saying he found the situation somewhat ironic because “the odds are much greater of being strung up by a Canadian Jew than a Canadian schwarze.” Loeb, who is Jewish, used “schwarze,” a derogatory Yiddish word for a black person, to describe Watsa, who is of Indian ancestry.”
  • Making light of domestic violence by comparing Obama to an abuser: In a 2010 letter to hedge fund managers who had supported Obama, Loeb wrote, according to CNBC: “I am sure, if we are really nice and stay quiet, everything will be alright and the President will become more centrist and that all his tough talk is just words; I mean he really loves us and when he beats us, he doesn’t mean it; he just gets a little angry.”
  • Making a xenophobic, homophobic attack against a rival: A damning 2013 Vanity Fair profile dredged up an anecdote from 1999, when Loeb was feuding with John Liviakis, a San Francisco public-relations executive. In an “imaginary monologue” in the voice of Liviakis, Loeb wrote under a pseudonym: “Then I will laugh at you fools for buying my shares and I will celebrate with a bottle of grappa, some fresh feta, and a nice young boy-just like in the old country.” Liviakis sued him for libel.

Loeb’s allies say his mean-spirited comments don’t necessarily reflect deep-seated beliefs. “I have known Dan to be a champion for underserved children who has worked tirelessly for years on their behalf,” said Jenny Sedlis, the head of StudentsFirstNY and a former deputy to Moskowitz, last week. “I know from first-hand experience the post he made does not reflect his true beliefs or the person he is.”

He has championed progressive causes in the past. Most notably, Loeb helped get gay marriage on the books in New York by throwing his influence into winning over Senate Republicans. This position put him in line with most Democrats and with Moskowitz, who has had wide support in New York City’s gay community for nearly 20 years. It also suggests that some of his internet posts, which have included seemingly homophobic comments, do not necessarily reflect the entirety of his beliefs.

It’s also not his first ethical challenge. Loeb had an account on the marital cheating site Ashley Madison, though he later said he did not use the site to engage or meet anyone on the site. He also has garnered criticism for the way he uses online message boards, where some business insiders say he plays fast and loose with federal regulations about the ways hedge fund operators can communicate with investors. And multiple accounts have him hitting a Cuban child with his car during a vacation in 2002, although he and his friends tell different versions of that story.

His friends and investors have their own problems. At Third Point Management, Loeb manages $17 billion and has a host of high-profile investors — including someone else who landed in hot water for speaking freely this summer. Anthony Scaramucci told Vanity Fair that Loeb was “one of the best investors of his generation. . . . He is the guy that would chew through the wallboard to create a return for his investors.” At the time, Scaramucci had invested about 10 percent of his own fund’s $500 million with Loeb. Now, of course, he’s better known as the man who served for 10 days as Trump’s White House communications director before resigning after making a profanity-laden public attack on other White House officials.