Shifting strategy

To fight poverty in U.S., Bill and Melinda Gates say they may move beyond education

PHOTO: Department for International Development/Russell Watkins

Bill and Melinda Gates say they are rethinking how they address poverty in the U.S. — a move that could have them expand their influential philanthropic efforts beyond education.

The couple’s philanthropy has had an outsized influence on U.S. schools over the last two decades, as they’ve given hundreds of millions to encourage new models for high schools, the Common Core standards, and sweeping changes to teacher evaluation. In a letter released Tuesday, though, they indicate that they’re grappling with how improving education alone isn’t enough to move people out of poverty, and their strategy may be about to shift as a result.

“We’ve been looking at how we might expand our work in the U.S. beyond education,” Bill Gates writes. A trip to Atlanta last fall “reinforced the importance of education,” he said, but also underscored how issues of race, employment, housing, mental health, and incarceration are also connected to their mission. (Gates also supports Chalkbeat.)

It’s an acknowledgement that the U.S. is still grappling with issues that have been more central to their international giving. And it’s in line with some recent research showing that education may matter less than other factors, like local labor conditions, in determining whether poor children move up the economic ladder.

Here are a few other notable lines from the Gates’ annual letter:

  • “Cash-strapped school districts are more likely to divert money and talent toward ideas they think we will fund.” The letter includes a lengthy section grappling with their own disproportionate influence. It’s unfair, they say, but they make up for it by being transparent and changing course when things don’t work — as they’re doing now with their education initiatives. We’ve written recently about their new focus on “networks” of public schools and improving curriculum.
  • “For any new approach to take off, you need three things. First you have to run a pilot project showing that the approach works. Then the work has to sustain itself. Finally, the approach has to spread to other places.” This formula didn’t work for their teacher evaluation work, they acknowledge, as only a few places — including Memphis — have stuck with new systems over the long term.
  • “I wish our president would treat people, and especially women, with more respect when he speaks and tweets.” The letter also includes an appeal to President Trump to be a role model and, on education, to help simplify the financial aid process for poor students applying to college.

Follow the money

Here’s who is giving money to Memphis school board candidates — and not all of it is local

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede

For the first time in four years, one school board candidate has attracted campaign money from groups outside the state interested in seeing changes in the way Memphis schools are run.

Kori Hamner, a former Shelby County Schools employee, has received $6,800 from the Leaders in Education Fund, a group with ties to Michael Bloomberg, the former mayor of New York City who reshaped how schools were evaluated and brought charters to the city.

Other contributors affiliated with this group are Leadership for Educational Equity, a Washington D.C.-based PAC that supports Teach for America alumni running for public office. It also paid the campaign a separate $1,000 loan. Arthur Rock, a Silicon Valley venture capitalist, is also affiliated with the group and separately contributed $1,500 to Hamner’s campaign.

Hamner said Leadership for Educational Equity’s goal is “making sure that an educator is on the school board.”

“Every dollar that we raise is another voter we can reach with our message of putting kids first in our district,” said Hamner, now the managing director of teacher training organization Achievement Network.

Hamner, who is challenging incumbent Mike Kernell, is also one of the two biggest spenders in the campaign. The other is incumbent Billy Orgel, a real estate developer and business owner who represents much of East Memphis. Together they spent more than half of the $45,000 from all the candidates who reported spending to the state.

Orgel has about $85,000 on hand and has spent more than $19,000 — most of which went to a local public relations firm. He faces the least opposition with only one opponent, Jerry Cunningham, a retired Memphis educator who has not filed any campaign finance paperwork.

The only other candidate bringing in money from outside Memphis is Michelle Robinson McKissack, a magazine editor and board member for Crosstown High School who is challenging incumbent Chris Caldwell in the downtown district.

McKissack described her outside funding, which was less than a quarter of Hamner’s, as a network of family and friends in Illinois, where she attended college and lived, and a few other states.

Want to learn more about what school board candidates want to see change? Read our election guide and come to our candidate forum Thursday, July 19.

Representatives of Memphis philanthropies, which have put a lot of money into shaping local education policy, have also contributed to several races.

Pitt Hyde, the owner of AutoZone and founder of Hyde Family Foundation, and his wife, Barbara Hyde, contributed $1,500 each to McKissack. Teresa Sloyan, the executive director of Hyde Family Foundation, donated to Orgel. Courtney Leon, Plough Foundation’s program officer, donated to incumbent Shante Avant; Diane Rudner, Plough’s chairwoman, donated to Orgel. (Plough and Hyde foundations are also Chalkbeat funders.)

Fellow school board members and Superintendent Dorsey Hopson are throwing their support behind incumbents. Board member Kevin Woods, whose district includes the schools in Germantown, gave $500 to Orgel. Orgel gave more than $1,000 to both Avant and Chris Caldwell, who both face three opponents, and Teresa Jones and Hopson contributed to Avant’s campaign.

Four candidates do not have recent campaign finance reports on the state’s website: Michael Scruggs, a former teacher; Percy Hunter, the parent and community engagement coordinator for charter network Green Dot Public Schools; Cunningham, the retired teacher; and Alvin Crook, a representative for the Tennessee Young Democrats.

And four candidates have not raised or spent more than $1,000: Roderic Ford, a loss prevention officer at Schulte Hospitality; Minnie Hunter, a store manager at Quick Cash; Joyce Dorse-Coleman, a community liaison for the Orange Mound Gallery; and incumbent Mike Kernell.

Early voting started July 13; the election is Aug. 2. To find your district, check out the maps from Shelby County Schools.

School Board Campaign Spending

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.