New Tri-State Defender, Memphis
On any given day, you can find Sarah Carpenter organizing parents in the Memphis area. A single mother of four daughters and 13 grandchildren, Carpenter was an advocate long before becoming co-founder and CEO of The Memphis Lift, which she describes as “a parent organization run by parents, for parents.”
Born and raised in North Memphis, Carpenter says her experience as a single parent prepared her to lead The Memphis Lift. “I have always been an advocate for my daughters and for other’s kids,” she says. “I started in 1995 when I was asked to help open a Family Resource Center in a high school and students without involved parents in their lives took to me. Parents would stop me and say, ‘They are passing my son on to High School and he can’t even read.”
Carpenter and her fellow co-founders met during the training component of a public advocate fellowship funded by the Memphis Education Fund, which educated parents about the landscape in Shelby County Schools (SCS). At the time, SCS had the highest number of “priority schools” –those in which student scores on state exams ranked in the bottom five percent – in Tennessee.
Carpenter and her colleagues have since visited more than 10,000 homes to educate others on the state of Memphis’s schools. SCS students can attend four categories of schools: traditional neighborhood schools, charter schools, charter schools in the state-run Achievement Schools District, and schools in the district’s Innovation Zone.
For Carpenter and her organization, ensuring that all parents – regardless of income – have access to all the options SCS has to offer is paramount. In January 2018, the district launched a scorecard to help parents compare schools based on student achievement, growth, attendance, and suspension rates. The Memphis Lift helps parents interpret the scorecard and navigate their options, so they can make the best choices for their children.
Carpenter is intimately acquainted with the many options parents have: all of her daughters attended neighborhood schools, yet all but one of her grandchildren attend charter schools.
Charter schools are public schools operated by independent organizations—mostly nonprofits—typically on five-year “charters,” or performance contracts. They are free from many of the bureaucratic rules that stifle innovation in district schools, but in return they are accountable for their performance: if their students are falling too far behind grade level, their charters are not renewed and they must close.
Carpenter’s granddaughters are not unusual. Charter enrollment in SCS has increased every year for the past four years; currently, 15,200 students—15 percent of the district–are enrolled in 51 charter schools. In spite of the increased enrollment, enrolling in charter schools in SCS is no easy feat, even for the most engaged parent. Enrolling in the highest performing charters, which use lotteries to select their students because so many apply, is even more difficult. First families must visit their zoned school or approved school choice location to get a PowerSchool account, then they must register online, then visit charters they are interested in, then apply and hope they win the lottery. For parents with multiple children in multiple schools, the process can be difficult, expensive, and time-consuming.
The topic of charter schools in SCS was highlighted in The Memphis Lift’s Annual Parents Summit, last October. This year’s summit was done in collaboration with the Memphis Education Fund and the Progressive Policy Institute’s Reinventing America’s Schools project.
Charters in Tennessee are authorized either by districts or by the state Board of Education. In cities and states where authorizers close failing charters, their performance is usually far better than that of district schools. Where authorizers fail to close lagging schools, charter performance is far less impressive. Unfortunately, Shelby County Schools has not been rigorous about closing its charters, and their quality varies.
In the most recent SCS scorecard, SCS secondary charter schools perform better than K-8 charter schools when compared to district-managed schools. SCS secondary charter schools outperformed district-managed secondary schools, with 54 percent rated as “good” or “excellent,” compared to only 46 percent of district-managed schools.” District-managed K-8 schools outperformed K-8 charter schools with 41 percent rated as “good” or “excellent,” compared to only 33 percent of K-8 charter schools.
Parents attending the summit supported replacing underperforming charter and district schools with stronger operators, both charters and district school leaders. This can usually be done without disruption to the students, who remain in the school under new leadership.
But for parents at the summit, a quality charter school didn’t mean much without access to it. So The Memphis Lift’s highest priority is a universal enrollment system for all Memphis public schools, through which parents can use a single application to rank their top choice schools. The system then uses a lottery algorithm to match students to schools based on availability and preference. For low-income parents, universal enrollment systems help ensure equal access to quality schools. New Orleans, Denver, Indianapolis, Washington, D.C., Newark, and several other cities have adopted such systems, which include virtually all traditional and charter schools.
The third priority summit participants chose was improving transportation to schools, because many families simply cannot get their children to quality schools
Carpenter is excited about the future of The Memphis Lift, but she understands how much work still needs to be done. “We have made an impact on waking parents up about how this system is run…but we haven’t moved the needle enough,” she says.
Meanwhile, Carpenter has received multiple requests for advice on how to replicate The Memphis Lift model in other cities. Currently the organization is mentoring parent groups in St. Louis, Nashville, Atlanta, and Newark.
Despite her national notoriety and popularity with those in the education reform community, Carpenter is quick to remind us that, “Before I heard the term ‘ed reform,’ I was already advocating for kids in my community and my own kids, too!”
Her advice to parents with children in underperforming school districts is to first “get educated on the landscape of education…You can’t fight for anything if you don’t know what you’re fighting for.”
Follow Carpenter and The Memphis Lift on their website www.memphislift.org or on Twitter @memphis_lift.