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:

School safety

Hiring more security officers in Memphis after school shootings could have unintended consequences

PHOTO: Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post/Getty Images

Tennessee’s largest district, Shelby County Schools, is slated to add more school resource officers under the proposed budget for next school year.

Superintendent Dorsey Hopson earmarked $2 million to hire 30 school resource officers in addition to the 98 already in some of its 150-plus schools. The school board is scheduled to vote on the budget Tuesday.

But an increase in law enforcement officers could have unintended consequences.

A new state law that bans local governments from refusing to cooperate with federal immigration officials could put school resource officers in an awkward position.

Tennessee Education Commissioner Candice McQueen recently reminded school personnel they are not obligated to release student information regarding immigration status. School resource officers employed by police or sheriff’s departments, however, do not answer to school districts. Shelby County Schools is still reviewing the law, but school board members have previously gone on the record emphasizing their commitment to protecting undocumented students.

“Right now we are just trying to get a better understanding of the law and the impact that it may have,” said Natalia Powers, a district spokeswoman.

Also, incidents of excessive force and racial bias toward black students have cropped up in recent years. Two white Memphis officers were fired in 2013 after hitting a black student and wrestling her to the ground because she was “yelling and cussing” on school grounds. And mothers of four elementary school students recently filed a lawsuit against a Murfreesboro officer who arrested them at school in 2016 for failing to break up a fight that occurred off-campus.

Just how common those incidents are in Memphis is unclear. In response to Chalkbeat’s query for the number and type of complaints in the last two school years, Shelby County Schools said it “does not have any documents responsive to this request.”

Currently, 38 school resource officers are sheriff’s deputies, and the rest are security officers hired by Shelby County Schools. The officers respond and work to prevent criminal activity in all high schools and middle schools, Hopson said. The 30 additional officers would augment staffing at some schools and for the first time, branch out to some elementary schools. Hopson said those decisions will be based on crime rates in surrounding neighborhoods and school incidents.

Hopson’s initial recommendation for more school resource officers was in response to the school shooting in Parkland, Florida, that killed 17 people and sparked a wave of student activism on school safety, including in Memphis.

Gov. Bill Haslam’s recent $30 million budget boost would allow school districts across Tennessee to hire more law enforcement officers or improve building security. Measures to arm some teachers with guns or outlaw certain types of guns have fallen flat.

For more on the role and history of school resource officers in Tennessee, read our five things to know.

Sheriff’s deputies and district security officers meet weekly, said Capt. Dallas Lavergne of the Shelby County Sheriff’s Office. When the Memphis Police Department pulled their officers out of school buildings following the merger of city and county school systems, the county Sheriff’s Office replaced them with deputies.

All deputy recruits go through school resource officer training, and those who are assigned to schools get additional annual training. In a 2013 review of police academies across the nation, Tennessee was cited as the only state that had specific training for officers deployed to schools.

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