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.

Frequently asked

New Denver teacher contract: We answer the most common questions about the tentative pact

PHOTO: Joe Amon/The Denver Post
Students in class at Dora Moore ECE-8 during the second day of the Denver Public Schools teachers strike.

One reason many Denver educators didn’t like the district’s old ProComp pay system was that it was too complicated and unpredictable. Both sides agree that the deal reached early Thursday morning creates a much simpler pay system for teachers.

But educators — and the general public — still have a lot of questions about the tentative ProComp agreement, which still needs to be ratified by union members and the Denver school board. Here we’ve answered some of the most common questions we’ve heard since the end of the strike.

How do I place myself on the salary schedule?

The salary schedule is made up of “steps” and “lanes.” The “steps” represent years of service for which a teacher had a positive evaluation. The “lanes” represent levels of education. The new schedule has 20 steps and seven lanes.

Worked in Denver Public Schools for five years and have a master’s degree? Go to step five and then slide your finger over to the master’s degree lane. That’s your base salary.

Did you have a year when your evaluation wasn’t good? Go back one step. Have an additional 18 credits on top of your master’s degree? Go up one more lane.

Teachers can also go up a lane once they hit the 10-year mark because the district wanted to reward longevity. Other milestones that merit a lane change: earning national board certification or an advanced license, or completing six “professional development unit” training courses.

Still not sure? Denver Public Schools plans to put a salary calculator on its website soon.

What if I have more than 20 years of experience?

If you have 20 or more years of experience, you’re placed at the top of the salary schedule, on step 20. After step 20, you’ll get yearly cost-of-living raises. You’re still eligible to change lanes, but you won’t get any more step raises.

Does the district know everything it needs to know about individual educators to pay them the correct salary?

Denver Public Schools plans to send letters or emails this spring to every teacher and special service provider (nurses, counselors, and others) covered by the contract, laying out where the district believes that employee falls on the schedule based on information they have on file. Educators will have a certain amount of time to correct any wrong information and get on the correct step and lane for the 2019-20 school year.

Under the new salary schedule, it looks like I’ll earn less next year than I do now. Am I taking a pay cut?

No. The agreement includes a “hold harmless” clause that ensures everyone will get a raise next year. Those whose salaries are higher now than they would be under the new schedule will get a cost-of-living raise each year until the salary schedule catches up with them.

How are bonuses and incentives different under the new contract?

The bonuses and incentives are different in three ways: There are fewer of them, the dollar amounts are different, and the dollar amounts won’t change year to year.

This year, there are six bonuses and incentives offered by the district: one for educators who work in Title I schools where 60 percent or more of the student population qualifies for subsidized meals; one for educators who work in hard-to-fill positions; one for educators who work in “hard-to-serve” schools; one for educators who work in one of 30 “highest-priority” schools; one for educators who return year over year to those schools; and one for educators who work in schools deemed top-performing or high-growth, as based on school ratings.

Here’s what’s left in the new contract: Teachers in Title 1 schools and those in hard-to-fill positions, such as secondary math, will get $2,000 a year. Teachers who return year over year to 30 highest-priority schools will get $3,000 a year. Teachers in 10 schools deemed “distinguished” will get $750 a year, with the criteria to be determined by the district and the union.

Why aren’t the district and the union tying bonuses to test scores anymore?

Unions have traditionally been skeptical of paying teachers based on student test scores because the scores are so closely correlated with factors like race and household income. In Denver, these bonuses were also less predictable for teachers because the district often changed the criteria it used to rate schools and award “top-performing” bonuses.

The district also came to see these bonuses as canceling out the effects of bonuses for teachers at high-poverty schools. A teacher could get nearly the same kind of monetary reward by moving to a more affluent school or by staying in one where students face more challenges. The new bonus system provides clearer monetary benefits to working in a high-poverty school.

Why did the union agree to keep the incentive for highest-priority schools, when that had been such a sticking point?

In any negotiation, there’s give and take and a lot of moving pieces. 

Here’s what lead negotiator Rob Gould said to district officials during bargaining: “We are open to the incentive because we know it’s important to you. And we’re willing to entertain your ideas if we can get the base salary schedule that our teachers need. Because if we can get the base salaries we need, we can keep our teachers in Denver.”

This was also an issue that divided teachers, with some teachers at schools that received the highest-priority incentive pushing to keep them.

Did teachers get a better deal out of the strike than the district’s last offer before the strike?

Teachers were getting a raise no matter what. The district was offering an average 10 percent raise before the strike (this included a cost-of-living raise that was agreed to back in 2017). Now teachers will get an average 11.7 percent raise, though individual teachers will see a wide range.

The district is putting the same amount of new money — $23.5 million — into teacher compensation as it was offering before the strike. It can give a larger average raise with that same amount of money because the incentives are smaller than under the previous proposal and because of limits on how teachers can use training to get raises. That gives the district more predictability about how many teachers will get raises each year.

Union leaders call the deal a win. They secured more opportunities for teachers to earn raises and move into higher categories on the salary schedule, including through completing training partially during work hours at no additional cost. And teachers can get to $100,000 in 20 years, rather than the 30 years in the last district proposal.

However, individual teachers aren’t necessarily getting more base pay next year than they would have under the district’s last offer. Early-career teachers without advanced degrees would have earned more in base pay under the district’s last offer. The teachers who do better under the deal reached after the strike are veteran educators with more education.

To take two examples: A second-year educator with a bachelor’s degree and no extra credits or training would have earned $47,550 in base pay under the district’s last offer before the strike but will earn $46,869 under the deal reached this week.

But a 20-year educator who has a master’s degree and an advanced license who has been with the district for 10 years will earn $88,907 in base pay under the new agreement, compared with $87,550 under the district’s last proposal before the strike.

The union fought for this kind of salary schedule in part to address a longstanding complaint that teachers have little reason to stay in a district where base pay levels off.

You can see the salary schedule from the district’s last offer here and the schedule from the tentative agreement here.

Is this deal financially sustainable for the district?

Denver Public Schools Chief Financial Officer Mark Ferrandino says that is the “million-dollar question,” perhaps closer to the “half-billion-dollar question,” since that is roughly how much the district spends on educator compensation.

Ferrandino believes the answer is yes, with the standard caveat that all projections are just that.

What will be cut to pay for this?

The district plans to cut $20 million from administrative costs over the next two years. That includes cutting 150 jobs in the central office and ending all executive bonuses. The bulk of it — $13 million — will go to fund the ProComp agreement.

District officials have not yet said which central office jobs will be cut, though Superintendent Susana Cordova has said cuts will be to “discretionary” departments. Departments that will not be cut include special education, English language acquisition, and transportation, she said.

Teachers will get a raise. What about paraprofessionals, bus drivers, custodians, and cafeteria workers?

These other district employees, much lower paid than teachers, are not covered by the contract that was the subject of the strike. Cordova has said these workers also deserve raises and a portion of administrative cuts will go to pay for them.

But how much of a raise will they get? That will all be worked out over the next few months and include discussions with the unions that represent these employees.

Will striking teachers get back pay?

Not according to district officials. After this story was published Friday, we asked for further clarification on this. We received this statement Saturday morning:

Superintendent Cordova understands that when teachers make the choice to strike, they are doing so to make a statement and bring attention to the importance of the issue at hand. Foregoing pay during the time that a teacher is not working is a challenging decision that no one makes lightly, and consequently, brings with it an impact that is intended to push for change.

DPS did not feel that it would be fair or appropriate to provide back pay to striking teachers when many others — including more than 40 percent of classroom teachers — chose to remain at work this week. However, DPS is working with the DCTA to offer all teachers the opportunity to attend a Saturday session to replace the professional development day that was cancelled in the days leading up to the strike. Any teacher who attends will be paid a day’s salary.

When will the new agreement go into effect? How long will it last?

Assuming both sides ratify it, the new agreement technically (and retroactively) went into effect Jan. 19, the day after the old one expired. But educators won’t start receiving the new salaries, incentives, and bonuses negotiated under it until Aug. 1. The agreement expires Aug. 31, 2022.

Teens Talk Back

‘Mr. Mayor, we cannot afford to wait.’ Teen group says New York City diversity plan doesn’t move fast enough.

PHOTO: Courtesy/Teens Take Charge
Teens Take Charge members at a "virtual" press conference in New York City on Thursday

A teen group representing students from more than 30 New York City high schools sharply criticized a recent report from Mayor Bill de Blasio’s School Diversity Advisory Group as offering no real solutions for increasing integration in the city’s starkly segregated high schools.

At a virtual press conference on Thursday, broadcast live on Facebook by Teens Take Charge, students expressed support for the report’s broad policy aim of achieving greater integration but also disappointment that the findings offered few specifics for how to reach this goal. The mayor’s Diversity Advisory Group has said a follow-up report will provide more details later this year.

“We have been told to wait, to be patient, that change is coming soon,” said Tiffani Torres, a junior at Pace High School in Manhattan. “Mr. Mayor, we cannot afford to wait any longer.”

Teens Take Charge has long advocated for greater efforts to end segregated enrollment patterns in the city’s high schools. Sokhnadiarra Ndiaye, a junior at Brooklyn College Academy High School, said that students’ expectations of the mayor included his announcing “a comprehensive plan” — even if it took years to realize — “to racially, socioeconomically, and academically integrate high schools before the end of this school year,” she said.

Among Teens Take Charge’s specific recommendations are doing away with academic screens for admission to the city’s high schools, a more transparent process for applying to them, and more resources for low-income schools. Early last year, the group produced an Enrollment Equity Plan for increasing educational opportunities for low-income black and Hispanic students.

And because concrete plans for increasing integration would take time, Ndiaye said the teen organization supports several interim measures as well to address inequities in the school system. These include providing more college and career counseling for junior and seniors at low-income, under-resourced high schools. The teen group would also like to see the city provide vouchers to low-income families to access extra-curricular activities and programs offered by private companies or the ability to participate in such programs at other public schools if theirs don’t offer them. (Some city teens joined a class-action lawsuit against the education department and Public School Athletic League for allegedly denying black and Hispanic students equal opportunity to play on school sports teams, in violation of local human rights law.)

Torres described how Teens Take Charge has had “several meetings and phone conversations with Department of Education officials over the past year,” and schools chancellor Richard Carranza has stated that students have his ear. “We’re listening,” he tweeted in response to a Chalkbeat story with excerpts of the students’ views.

In December, the city’s education department posted a new job listing for a “Student Voice Manager” who would gather students’ thoughts on education policies. But while acknowledging this seat at the table, several students expressed frustration at the slow pace of change.

Bill de Blasio’s office declined to comment about Teens Take Charge’s concerns or their specific recommendations, beyond referencing remarks the mayor already made about the School Diversity Advisory Group report.

Doug Cohen, an education department spokesman, said in a statement, “We’ve taken real steps toward school integration,” pointing to initiatives such as a $2 million diversity grant program for school districts and communities citywide to develop their own local diversity plans, and a program that enables middle-schoolers to visit college campuses. “We know there is more work to do, and we thank Teens Take Charge for its continued advocacy on these issues,” he added.

Students at the group’s event urged swift change. “They know our plan; they have our information,” said Sophie Mode, a sophomore at Brooklyn Millennium. “They need to take action now.”