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Parents, Grandparents Lead Movement for Better Schools in Memphis

June 14, 2018
Grassroots group fights to ensure high-quality education options for low-income students

Sarah Carpenter has one goal for kids who are growing up poor in Memphis: “To make sure there is a level the playing field, so all children can go to a great school.”

A grandmother of 13, Sarah has helped mobilize an army of parents to make that happen.

In 2015, Sarah was among a group of about 20 concerned parents and grandparents from low-income communities who launched The Memphis Lift, to give families a bigger voice in decisions being made about how to improve K-12 education in Tennessee’s second-largest city.

Since then, through extensive community outreach and education, the organization has enlisted more than 1,000 people and emerged as a force to raise awareness of educational inequity and demand for high quality education through choice and competition.

We live in a city where, if you empower parents, we can change the way the education landscape looks.
Sarah Carpenter, executive director of The Memphis Lift

They want to see the local education landscape transformed to provide families and students with new school models and more high-quality school options – the best way, they say, to eliminate the system inequities in K-12 education.

“We live in a city where, if you empower parents, we can change the way the education landscape looks. We can change the way politicians think about low-income families,” says Sarah, the group’s executive director.

“We were never invited to the table, but now we made our way to the table. We are not taking ‘no’ for answer when it comes to what’s best for our kids.”

The challenges facing Memphis schools are significant. Of Tennessee’s 81 lowest-performing schools, 55 are in Memphis. Only one in five students in these schools perform at grade level in math, and only one in six can read at grade level.

But when Sarah and The Memphis Lift began work three years ago, they learned one of their biggest hurdles was a lack of knowledge among parents about the state of the schools their children were attending.

Many parents weren’t aware, for example, that their kids’ schools had been identified as at risk.

“We were knocking on doors in the roughest parts of the city in 2015. Those parents had no idea their schools were failing schools,” says Sarah.

“They would say, ‘Well, my baby is bringing home all A’s and B’s. But they didn’t know what reading level their child was on.”

Sarah Carpenter (left) and Deidra Brooks (right) with former U.S. Educadtion Secretary John B. King, Jr.

Nearly 90% of parents were not aware their child was attending a low-performing school.

In response to the lack of information, The Memphis Lift formed a ‘surge team’ of parent and family volunteers to knock on doors – more than 10,000 in 2015 alone – to inform parents in low-income communities about poor school performance and potential fixes, including conversion to a public charter school.

The group also launched a free ‘public advocate fellowship’ to give families the tools they need to fight on behalf of their children, including how to find information on a school’s performance and about school board and community meetings where they can share their views with decision makers.

The fellowship program now has more than 308 graduates.

Finally, the organization provides “choice counseling” to families to provide them information about other school options for children enrolled in low-performing schools. In Memphis, those options can include neighborhood and optional schools within the Shelby County School District, public charter schools, schools in the state-operated Achievement School District or Innovation Zone schools under control of the Shelby County School District.

“If parents don’t like school their kids are going to, we have staff to help them ask the right questions during school tours and visits,” Sarah says. The Memphis Lift also works with families to help them apply to a school of choice.

Sarah Carpenter, executive director of The Memphis Lift, at her granddaughter's graduation from Middle Tennessee State University

The Walton Family Foundation provides funding to support The Memphis Lift’s work.

Deidra Brooks, The Memphis Lift’s chief of staff, says she learned firsthand about the need for dramatic improvements to Memphis schools.

She graduated in 2008 from Central High School as an honors student who took advanced placement classes in English and Calculus. But when she began college, she had to enroll in remedial classes because of low marks on her ACT tests.

“I graduated in the top 15 in my class, but there was a gap between what I thought my achievement was, and what it actually was,” Deidra says. “I wanted to be a part of making sure all students, no matter where they come from, have the same opportunity to be prepared for career or college.”

Sarah plans to keep speaking up until there is no longer a dearth of high-quality school options in Memphis.

“I am optimistic because I know the powers that be are listening. It’s because of parents staying involved and putting the pressure on the people making decisions. We have the momentum.”

Seeds of Opportunity is a storytelling series recognizing 30 partners the Walton Family Foundation has worked with over the years to build better schools, protect our environment and improve quality of life in our home region through culture, recreation and the arts. They are people and organizations who – through creativity, imagination and urgency – are advancing opportunity for people and communities at home and around the world.
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