Powerful Parents

‘Sharing their hearts’: Why these parents became advocates for Memphis students

PHOTO: Rebecca Griesbach
Memphis Lift, a parent advocacy organization, is training its ninth cohort of public advocate fellows.

While their children are out of school for the summer, a local parent group is using this time to hit the books.

Memphis Lift, a non-profit organization in North Memphis, aims to amplify the voices of those who, some say, have historically been excluded from conversations surrounding their schools. Many of those conversations, said organizer Dianechia Fields, have made out parents like her to be “scapegoats” for students’ struggles in the classroom.

“It’s easy to blame someone who’s not there in the room,” she said. “Instead of blaming parents as the problem, we’re inviting parents to the table to be part of the solution.”

Fields is the director of the program’s Public Advocate Fellowship, which was created three years ago by Natasha Kamrani and John Little, who came to Memphis from Nashville to train local parents to become advocates for school equity.

On Tuesday, Lift held the first of ten sessions for its ninth cohort of fellows. This month, 19 parents and grandparents will learn about topics such as the history of education in Memphis and school funding. At each session, they’ll receive coaching from special guests and alumni fellows, and they’ll also make connections with local education leaders.

In order to better communicate with decision-makers, the group will complete public speaking exercises with the help of coach Darius Wallace. His focus this week: getting fellows to “share their hearts.”

In Wednesday’s class, Wallace asked the cohort to think hard about who they’re advocating for, what pain that person may feel, and what their dream is moving forward. Here’s what a few of them had to say:

Jerrineka Hampton, a Shelby County Schools worker, is advocating for students in her Memphis school who often lack access to the materials they need, like pens or paper. Her dream is to “close the economic and academic gap” in schools like hers, and to help train others to do the same.

Shanita Knox, a mother of two, is advocating for her 10- year- old son, who struggles with his speech and is often bullied because of it. Her dream for him is to “do whatever he wants in life without having to work a dead-end job.”

PHOTO: Rebecca Griesbach
The parents are asked to share with each other their hopes for their children.

Patricia Robinson is advocating for her granddaughter, whose father is incarcerated. Robinson’s dream is for her to take the pain and loneliness she feels and “learn how to talk about it.”

Violet Odom, a mother of two, is advocating for her daughter, a soon-to-be middle schooler who is dealing with mental health challenges. Odom’s dream is for her daughter to “be able to live a normal life and use her voice to explain how she feels.”

Aimee Justice, a mother of three, is advocating for her son, who comes from a multiracial family. Her dream is for Memphis schools to become places where students of all nationalities can learn from each other.

Trenika Bufford is advocating for other kids in the system who, like her college-aged son, have been belittled by school officials. Through tears, she said she wished she listened to her son when he was younger. Her dream is to have a relationship with him again.

As the women shared their stories, Wallace and the group gave feedback on their delivery. As they practiced more, the fellows began to make more eye contact, speak louder and more directly, and use body language.

“People make decisions when they’re emotional,” Wallace reminded them. “Facts tell. Stories sell.”

PHOTO: Rebecca Griesbach
Ahada Elton smiles at her son. A mother of four, Elton said she wants to advocate for parents unaware of the opportunities schools offer, especially for children with special needs.

Effective communication will become even more important as the cohort prepares for their last session. That’s when they’ll work together to create a plan of action to tackle an issue in their community. This year, the group is already discussing taking steps toward unified enrollment, a centralized system that allows parents to easily compare schools in the same district.

And while that’s no small feat, it wouldn’t be the first time the group has tackled a project this large. Two years ago, graduating fellows knocked on about 10,000 doors throughout the city to inform other parents about local priority schools assigned to the state-run achievement school district.

That’s when alumna Kiara Jackson heard about the fellowship. Jackson, 24, was pregnant at the time with her third child, and she was living with her father in the North Memphis neighborhood when director Sarah Carpenter knocked on her window and told her about the program.

PHOTO: Rebecca Griesbach
Kiara Jackson, an alumna fellow, shares her testimony with the new cohort.

“I was a concerned parent,” she said, “but I didn’t even know the types of questions to get answers to.”

Shortly after, Jackson started going to Lift’s weekly classes, where she learned about quality schools in the area. Since joining the fellowship’s fourth cohort last year, Jackson had the opportunity to travel to Cincinnati and advocate for charter schools such as the one she’s working to get her daughter into.

“I enjoy the power that I have as a parent,” she said. “… With us being from low-income communities, they try to deny us our rights as parents. But our kids can get better educations”

When the class graduates next month, the fellowship will have trained 327 members, mostly women, since it launched in 2015. This past year, the group offered training for Spanish-speaking parents led by alumna Carmelita Hernandez. Now, the program is working on creating its first all-male cohort for fathers and grandfathers.

Funded in part by the Memphis Education Fund, the program will pay fellows, who often have to attend classes after work, $500 stipends when they graduate the course this year. (Chalkbeat also receives support from local philanthropies connected to Memphis Education Fund. You can learn more about our funding here.)

Editors note, July 17, 2018: This story has been updated to correct the number of people who have completed the program and other details about the fellowship.

Q&A

How one Memphis leader works to stop both ends of the school-to-prison pipeline

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
Michael Spearman supervises Shelby County Schools' 24 behavior specialists to get to the "why" behind student misconduct.

Michael Spearman knows firsthand the consequences of harshly punishing students for misbehavior, as opposed to figuring out the underlying cause.

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
Michael Spearman currently works at the detention center at Regional One Health when inmates need treatment. He also serves as a “crisis intervention officer” to respond to mentally ill people who come in contact with police.

In addition to his day job as lead behavior specialist for Shelby County Schools, he has spent more than two decades as an officer and detective with the Memphis Police Department. If the school system can’t address a student’s behavior, those students are more likely to enter the justice system as teens or adults. This reality for many students, especially students of color, is known as the “school-to-prison pipeline.”

Now that the Memphis school system has been able to add back behavior specialists and other personnel meant to meet students’ emotional needs, Spearman says there’s hope to disrupt the pipeline.

His team of about two dozen behavior specialists, in addition to meeting with students who have been suspended to get to the “why” behind their misbehavior, are working with school staff on classroom management, creating and using meaningful alternatives to out-of-school suspension, and reducing time students are out of school.

This year, behavior specialists will initiate small “restorative circles” at 15 schools. People connected to the student — for example a teacher or another school staffer, a pastor, a family member — gather to talk about the student’s behavior and determine next steps. Too often, advocates say, schools skip over alternatives to out-of-school suspensions, which contribute to students losing motivation to study or open the opportunity to get involved in petty or violent crime.

Chalkbeat sat down with Spearman to talk about strategies that have resulted in students changing their behavior. This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.

How do you see your roles interplaying with each other? How does each job impact the other?

In the Memphis Police Department, I’ve always worked in roles where I dealt with youth and the community. When I first graduated from the academy, I patrolled all of the public housing projects in Memphis, and provided community activities and services for the youth in the housing developments. I was one of the lead community officers where I oversaw the Boy Scouts, coached in the Police Athletic League, and was one the lead mentors.

From that, I really realized I had a passion for education. Working in public housing, my shift was from 4 p.m. to midnight. So, I decided to apply to be a substitute teacher. I knew I wanted to go into education, but I wasn’t sure how I was going to do it. Would I have to leave the police department? Could I stay? I started substitute teaching at both Bellevue Middle and Vance Middle schools and got my teaching certification.

From there, I was blessed to work as an officer at Bellevue and Vance schools. Being in that role introduced me to education and the processes as far as academics and behavior. I served as a mentor, counselor, anything an officer could be in the building. My thing was building relationships with parents, with the staff, and students.

I was then tapped to serve with the FBI with the Internet Crimes Against Children unit — we arrested producers of child pornography, sex offenders. I took some courses through the FBI about behavior triggers of sexual molesters and interviewed criminals or people with behavior issues. That’s when I saw my career coming full circle.

Meaning, you saw those behavior triggers in students you had worked with?

"When you have those issues festering within your mental system and you never go to get any help, as I say, what’s in you comes out."Michael Spearman

Right. When I was with the FBI, I said, “Wow, this has something to do with the educational piece.” After the FBI, I came back to the Memphis Police Department and worked with the sex crimes unit for children 13 and under who had been abused.

I was interviewing based on their behaviors and triggers — why they do what they do. That’s when I started noticing the defendants were becoming younger. And there were some defendants I knew from working in the schools. That solidified why I’m doing what I’m doing, understanding why things happen, and that I wanted to make a difference.

Tell me about your previous role at Cypress Middle School as a family engagement specialist.

I worked with the principal to build the culture of the school. We wanted to decrease chronic absenteeism, decrease tardiness, decrease out-of-school suspensions, utilize in-school suspension more, and assist teachers with strategies in classroom management. And my favorite role, I was also athletic director.

I loved every day at Cypress Middle. It was a little different because I grew up in South Memphis and I was at a North Memphis school. But as police officers, we know how to adapt to different situations; we’re trained to adapt. We’re also trained to observe and not have tunnel vision.

The first thing I wanted to do is find the parents and get parent participation back. I always think about myself and how would I want to be treated. If you know how you want to be treated, that’s how you should want the next person to be treated. Once we get the parents involved in the school, then we can get the community back involved. We went from probably eight parents coming to the parent-teacher organization meetings to about 50. (The school closed in 2014.)

Want to learn more about the school-to-prison pipeline and those working to stop it?

    • Randy McPherson, student support manager of behavior and student leadership for Shelby County Schools; Rod Peterson, principal of Oakhaven Middle School; and LeTicia Taylor, licensed restorative practices trainer will discuss restorative justice and conflict resolution at a panel event is hosted by Stand for Children in partnership with Campaign Nonviolence Memphis, Pax Christi Memphis, Tennessee Educational Equity Coalition, and the National Civil Rights Museum.
    • When: 6 to 8 p.m. Tuesday, Sept. 18
    • Where: National Civil Rights Museum, 450 Mulberry Street
      Memphis, TN 38103
    • RSVP here: https://ckbe.at/2pmrSlf

We would walk the neighborhood twice a month with teachers on Saturdays and have cookouts or other events to let parents know we were a part of the community. We would talk about the academic programs, tutoring, and character education we had going on at the school.

We had sponsors who would donate prizes for students with good attendance records and getting to school on time. Those same sponsors would send volunteers who would help us make phone calls to parents to let them know what was going on. We had a computer lab for parents working on their GED, and we worked with a city agency to help with job placement.

You’ve mentioned “triggers” several times. Can you elaborate on what those are and what works to minimize those?

When I say triggers, for me it’s about what ticks them off, what makes them angry. I’m going to use this word “checking” in Memphis that means somebody is talking about what you look like or things of that sort. And then you have a lot of family issues in the African-American community. When you look at broken homes, we don’t have a lot of fathers in the home. So, that’s a major trigger.

I’ve seen those triggers on every level of law enforcement. You have some who have been violated by their parents or a family member at young age and they never told anybody. So, when you have those issues festering within your mental system and you never go to get any help, as I say, what’s in you comes out. A lot of it comes out incorrectly and people have issues that the outcome is prison time.

On the education side, I would just take the time to sit down with students who had been suspended a lot or “frequent flyers” as we call them and talk with parents or guardians or someone they are close to in the household. I also made household visits. I love speaking with parents face-to-face when they’re home from work to hear what’s going on and figure out how to help the student. That’s anything from helping out with the student’s character to how to get the student to school on time.

On the law enforcement side, the only thing you could do is talk about the what if. If you could relive that incident, how would you handle it? We come back with what you should have done on how to interact, communicate, and cope.

How do schools contribute to that problem?

"Once you build relationships with those students, they will not only respect the school but they also will turn and respect themselves."Michael Spearman

I believe now the school district is doing a great job and trying to decrease and stop the school-to-prison pipeline. The district has systems in place now where you have advocates in the schools, you have your behavior specialists, you have in-school suspension, you have your professional school counselors. And you have outside organizations that are working in the schools now. We have the adults in the building who can identify you and pull you to the side on a mentor-mentee basis to talk about problems before a suspension or expulsion is issued.

I know from being a part of this system and trying to make it better for our African-American males, the district is doing a tremendous job to reduce to the school-to-prison pipeline.

The more resources we have for the employees the better it works out for the school district and the relationships we build with the students — because, always remember, relationship-building is the most important piece of the school day. If someone out of all those resources can build that solid relationship with the student who has been defiant and fighting, that one person in the building can relate and talk to the student about what’s going on. Once you build relationships with those students, they will not only respect the school but they also will turn and respect themselves. You see the fruits of your labor when that child who was acting up on Monday comes in on Wednesday and gets to school on time, in uniform, and goes and sits in that teacher’s class who’s probably been referring him 10 to 12 times.

You have to keep asking about their academics too. Because now they’ll know their mentor is going to ask them about what they learned, they’ll be more attentive.

PHOTO: Shelby County Schools
“Progressive discipline” chart behavior specialists are helping schools implement.

state testing

Teacher shortage blamed as Illinois SAT scores fall, PARCC test scores flatten

PHOTO: Justin Sullivan / Getty Images
SAT scores of Illinois high school juniors fell slightly this year, while scores for elementary and middle school students flatlined.

Preliminary results of statewide exams show fewer Illinois juniors meeting or exceeding expectations on the SAT college entrance exam this year than in 2017, when the test was implemented statewide.

At the same time, scores for elementary and middle-school students have flatlined, according to data presented at the Illinois State Board of Education on Wednesday.

State officials partly blamed a crippling teacher shortage. The state board spent a big chunk of a two-day fall retreat discussing the findings of a new report called Teach Illinois, which makes recommendations on how to grapple with shortages faced by Chicago as well as rural districts.

Board member Susie Morrison, who’s from Carlinville and is a former principal and state deputy superintendent, also expressed concerns about unequal access to challenging courses across districts.

“I think we need to have a conversation about what we can do to support local schools and districts,” she said. “This flatline of data is not particularly good news for us.”

Rae Clementz, the state’s director of assessments and accountability who presented the test score data Wednesday, said it is only the second year that the state has administered the SAT. She cautioned the board about reading too much into the 2018 results.

The state began administering the SAT to all 11th-grade public school students in the 2016-2017 school year. Illinois’ benchmark score is 540 on English Language Arts and 540 on math, which is higher than college readiness standard set by the College Board, which administers the SAT, of 480 and 530, respectively.

She said the state board has focused on widening access to advanced coursework and test preparation. Starting this school year, the state will begin to administer the pre-SAT standardized test, the PSAT, to all ninth- and 10th-graders.

On the SAT, 36.8 percent of students met or exceeded baseline scores in English and language arts. Broken down by ethnicity, 13.8 percent of black students, 22.2 percent of Hispanic students, and 48.6 percent of white students met state standards represented by the baseline. In comparison, only 1.4 percent of English language learners and 7.5 percent of special education students met the standards.

Scores were lower in math: 34.2 percent of students statewide met or exceeded baseline scores (see chart).

Narrowing the gap in test scores among subgroups, such as English language learners compared with the general student population, is an important measure of how well schools are doing in educating all children, including those who live in poverty or aren’t native English speakers.

Clementz also presented statewide results on the PARCC, a national assessment that is used to gauge if children are learning on grade level, and the Illinois Science Achievement Test. On the PARCC, student achievement across the board generally remained flat. Some wide gaps in scores that had been observed by race closed slightly.

Across four years of data, gaps in test scores for English language arts narrowed more than gaps in math. The PARCC assessment is administered to all third- to eighth-grade students in the state.

Slightly more than half, or 52.6 percent, of Illinois students met or exceeded state standards on the state science test. Only students in fifth and eighth grades, plus high school first-year biology students, take those tests.

Last year, the state adopted a new funding model that takes into account factors such as student poverty and community wealth. It allocates funds to districts under a formula intended to compensate for wide variations in property tax revenues, which fund schools. Some communities have that wealth and others don’t. It’s too early to know how that funding formula overhaul will impact scores.

The state released test scores on the heels of Chicago posting small gains in graduation rates and on a national exam used to rate its schools.

District- and school-level test score data will be released in the state school report card in late October.