On the road

Memphis Lift expands presence in Nashville, Washington, D.C.

PHOTO: Memphis Lift
Memphis Lift members congregate this week at Legislative Plaza in Nashville.

Earlier this month, 21 Memphis parents and grandparents stood on a stage in front of an auditorium packed with Teach For America alumni in Washington, D.C.

In matching orange shirts emblazoned with the words “Straight Outta Memphis,” the group delivered synchronized chants such as “Fired up! Ready to go!” and “We are parents with attitude!”

All members of the advocacy group Memphis Lift, the Memphians had traveled to Washington to attend Teach For America’s 25th anniversary celebration.

That’s a long way from the Memphis public housing project where the group launched last June with only 19 parents. It has since grown to more than 200 parents and grandparents of Memphis students.

Proclaiming that its mission is to educate, engage and empower parents on education issues, the group has become a strong supporter of the state-run Achievement School District, also known as the ASD. It’s dispatched representatives to the capitals of both the state and the nation to protest the state of Memphis schools.

Speaking to Teach For America teachers and alumni in Washington, Memphis Lift members compared their hometown’s low-performing schools to a form of slavery and said they are mobilizing parents to demand better schools.

“As a parent outreach organization, it is our mission to educate, engage and empower our city’s priority parents … and eliminate the high number of students who attend priority schools,” said organizer Elijah Sledge to the D.C. crowd, with fellow parents chiming in.

This week in Nashville, members met with state lawmakers and urged against supporting bills that would curtail the ASD. Most of those bills have been pulled from consideration this year.

The ASD came under fire from some state lawmakers, community leaders and parents in Memphis in December after a Vanderbilt University study suggested its turnaround efforts were not as noticeably effective as Shelby County Schools’ Innovation Zone. Some critics also alleged that the district’s school takeover process last fall was rigged.

Memphis Lift’s agenda includes campaigning for an increase in school funding, urging that any such increase goes to classrooms and not to administrators or central offices.

"We are here to demand that our schools work for us."Sarah Carpenter, Memphis Lift

“For far too long in the city of Memphis and around our country, poor people have been held back by a failing public school system,” said organizer Sarah Carpenter. “Some Republicans don’t want to increase school funding. Some Democrats care more about protecting systems and administrator jobs than they do about protecting children. We are here to demand that our schools work for us.”

Memphis Lift’s founding parents received advocacy training by Ian Buchanan, the ASD’s former director of community partnerships. Last summer, they were paid $12 to $15 an hour to knock on doors and raise awareness about local schools’ low test scores, drawing some criticism that the participants were motivated more by money than by conviction. Johnnie Hatten, a co-director of Memphis Lift, said the group was financially supported in part by Strategy Redefined, a Nashville-based public relations consultant group.

Some in Memphis’ education community, such Shelby County school board member Stephanie Love, have charged that the organization is directed by the agendas of organizations based outside of Memphis such as Teach For America.

Natasha Kamrani, director of Tennessee’s branch of Democrats For Education Reform and wife of founding ASD superintendent Chris Barbic, introduced the group to attendees of the TFA reunion, stating she was lucky to work with them.

You can watch Teach For America’s video of Memphis Lift’s visit to Washington here:

call out

Our readers had a lot to say in 2017. Make your voice heard in 2018.

PHOTO: Chris Hill/Whitney Achievement School
Teacher Carl Schneider walks children home in 2015 as part of the after-school walking program at Whitney Achievement Elementary School in Memphis. This photograph went viral and inspired a First Person reflection from Schneider in 2017.

Last year, some of our most popular pieces came from readers who told their stories in a series that we call First Person.

For instance, Carl Schneider wrote about the 2015 viral photograph that showed him walking his students home from school in a low-income neighborhood of Memphis. His perspective on what got lost in the shuffle continues to draw thousands of readers.

First Person is also a platform to influence policy. Recent high school graduate Anisah Karim described the pressure she felt to apply to 100 colleges in the quest for millions of dollars in scholarships. Because of her piece, the school board in Memphis is reviewing the so-called “million-dollar scholar” culture at some high schools.

Do you have a story to tell or a point to make? In 2018, we want to give an even greater voice to students, parents, teachers, administrators, advocates and others who are trying to improve public education in Tennessee. We’re looking for essays of 500 to 750 words grounded in personal experience.

Whether your piece is finished or you just have an idea to discuss, drop a line to Community Editor Caroline Bauman at [email protected]

But first, check out these top First Person pieces from Tennesseans in 2017:

My high school told me to apply to 100 colleges — and I almost lost myself in the process

“A counselor never tried to determine what the absolute best school for me would be. I wasted a lot of time, money and resources trying to figure that out. And I almost lost myself in the process.” —Anisah Karim     

Why I’m not anxious about where my kids go to school — but do worry about the segregation that surrounds us

“In fact, it will be a good thing for my boys to learn alongside children who are different from them in many ways — that is one advantage they will have that I did not, attending parochial schools in a lily-white suburb.” —Mary Jo Cramb

I covered Tennessee’s ed beat for Chalkbeat. Here’s what I learned.

“Apathy is often cited as a major problem facing education. That’s not the case in Tennessee.” —Grace Tatter

I went viral for walking my students home from school in Memphis. Here’s what got lost in the shuffle.

“When #blacklivesmatter is a controversial statement; when our black male students have a one in three chance of facing jail time; when kids in Memphis raised in the bottom fifth of the socioeconomic bracket have a 2.6 percent chance of climbing to the top fifth — our walking students home does not fix that, either.” —Carl Schneider

I think traditional public schools are the backbone of democracy. My child attends a charter school. Let’s talk.

“It was a complicated choice to make. The dialogue around school choice in Nashville, though, doesn’t often include much nuance — or many voices of parents like me.” —Aidan Hoyal

I grew up near Charlottesville and got a misleading education about Civil War history. Students deserve better.

“In my classroom discussions, the impetus for the Civil War was resigned to a debate over the balance of power between federal and state governments. Slavery was taught as a footnote to the cause of the war.” —Laura Faith Kebede

Weekend Reads

Need classroom decor inspiration? These educators have got you covered.

This school year, students will spend about 1,000 hours in school —making their classrooms a huge part of their learning experience.

We’re recognizing educators who’ve poured on the pizazz to make students feel welcome. From a 9th-grade “forensics lab” decked out in caution tape to a classroom stage complete with lights to get first graders pumped about public speaking, these crafty teachers have gone above and beyond to create great spaces.

Got a classroom of your own to show off? Know someone that should be on this list? Let us know!

Jaclyn Flores, First Grade Dual Language, Rochester, New York
“Having a classroom that is bright, cheerful, organized and inviting allows my students to feel pride in their classroom as well as feel welcome. My students look forward to standing on the stage to share or sitting on special chairs to dive into their learning. This space is a safe place for my students and we take pride in what it has become.”

Jasmine, Pre-K, Las Vegas, Nevada
“My classroom environment helps my students because providing calming colors and a home-like space makes them feel more comfortable in the classroom and ready to learn as first-time students!”


Oneika Osborne, 10th Grade Reading, Miami Southridge Senior High School, Miami, Florida
“My classroom environment invites all of my students to constantly be in a state of celebration and self-empowerment at all points of the learning process. With inspirational quotes, culturally relevant images, and an explosion of color, my classroom sets the tone for the day every single day as soon as we walk in. It is one of optimism, power, and of course glitter.”

Kristen Poindexter, Kindergarten, Spring Mill Elementary School, Indianapolis, Indiana
“I try very hard to make my classroom a place where memorable experiences happen. I use songs, finger plays, movement, and interactive activities to help cement concepts in their minds. It makes my teacher heart so happy when past students walk by my classroom and start their sentence with, “Remember when we…?”. We recently transformed our classroom into a Mad Science Lab where we investigated more about our 5 Senses.”


Brittany, 9th Grade Biology, Dallas, Texas
“I love my classroom environment because I teach Biology, it’s easy to relate every topic back to Forensics and real-life investigations! Mystery always gets the students going!”


Ms. Heaton, First Grade, Westampton, New Jersey
“As an educator, it is my goal to create a classroom environment that is positive and welcoming for students. I wanted to create a learning environment where students feel comfortable and in return stimulates student learning. A classroom is a second home for students so I wanted to ensure that the space was bright, friendly, and organized for the students to be able to use each and every day.”

D’Essence Grant, 8th Grade ELA, KIPP Houston, Houston, Texas
“Intentionally decorating my classroom was my first act of showing my students I care about them. I pride myself on building relationships with my students and them knowing I care about them inside and outside of the classroom. Taking the time to make the classroom meaningful and creative as well building a safe place for our community helps establish an effective classroom setting.”


Jayme Wiertzema, Elementary Art, Worthington, Minnesota
“I’m looking forward to having a CLASSROOM this year. The past two years I have taught from a cart and this year my amazing school district allowed me to have a classroom in our school that is busting at the seams! I’m so excited to use my classroom environment to inspire creativity in my students, get to know them and learn from their amazing imaginations in art class!”


Melissa Vecchio, 4th Grade, Queens, New York
“Since so much of a student’s time is spent inside their classroom, the environment should be neat, organized, easy to move around in but most of all positive. I love to use a theme to reinforce great behavior. I always give the students a choice in helping to design bulletin boards and desk arrangements. When they are involved they take pride in the classroom, and enjoy being there.”