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.

teachers on the ballot

Jahana Hayes, nation’s top teacher in 2016, may be headed to Congress after primary win

2016 National Teacher of the Year Jahana Hayes answers questions from reporters after being honored at the White House. (Photo by Cheriss May/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

Jahana Hayes, the 2016 national teacher of the year, is one step closer to Congress.

Hayes, who would be the first black Democrat elected to Congress in the state, won the Democratic primary in Connecticut’s fifth district on Tuesday. Her bid is the most high-profile example of efforts by teachers across the country to win elected office this year, with many dissatisfied over their pay and education policies like evaluations and voucher programs.

In an interview with Chalkbeat in May, Hayes said she decided to run because she believes she can represent the interests of students like hers: “I kind of just had an epiphany, like, who’s going to speak for them?”

Hayes taught history and civics in Waterbury Public Schools, a largely low-income district. Her campaign has embraced her upbringing, including her past homelessness and teen pregnancy and her role as a teacher in the district she grew up in.

“Despite being surrounded by abject poverty, drugs and violence, my teachers made me believe that I was college material and planted a seed of hope,” she said.

Hayes faced Mary Glassman, who ran for lieutenant governor twice and worked at Capitol Region Education Council, which operates magnet schools in Hartford.

Hayes ran on a solidly progressive platform, embracing universal healthcare, free college, and a $15 minimum wage.

When it comes to education, though, she has been light on policy details. Asked about what specifically she’d hope to accomplish in Congress, Hayes told Chalkbeat, “I know that I can bring a perspective and knowledge and expertise in that area that is critical. If we start to dismantle public education now, I don’t know how we’ll ever rebuild it.”

On the hot-button issue of school choice, Hayes stumbled on a question about vouchers, appearing to confuse the concept with charter schools. Ultimately, she said, “A charter system can still be public and continue to support the public education system. I think as we increase the number of vouchers that are provided, it takes away from the public school system.”

Perhaps surprisingly, Hayes said she would work with Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, who has been the focus of opposition for many teachers.

“I need for the secretary of education to be successful because if she’s successful that means kids are thriving,” Hayes said. “I would welcome the opportunity to work very closely with her, to share ideas, to just be at the table to give a different perspective, to give some insight into what is happening on the ground.”

To reach Congress, Hayes still must win the general election. Connecticut’s fifth district is the most competitive one in the state, according to Cook Political Report. Hillary Clinton won the district by 4 percentage points in 2016.

She will face Republican Manny Santos, a former mayor of Meriden, Connecticut.

Hayes was not the only teacher to win a primary bid on Tuesday. In Wisconsin, Tony Evers, the state’s school superintendent and a former teacher and principal, will face Scott Walker in the race for governor. And in Minnesota, Congressman Tim Walz, who was a high school geography teacher and football coach, won the Democratic governor’s primary.

Correction: A previous version of this story said that Hayes would be the first black person elected to Congress in Connecticut; in fact, she would be the first black Democrat.

Mended Fences

Despite earlier attack ads, Colorado teachers union endorses Jared Polis for governor

Congressman Jared Polis meets with teachers, parents and students at the Academy of Urban Learning in Denver after announcing his gubernatorial campaign. (Photo by Nic Garcia/Chalkbeat)

Colorado’s largest teachers union has endorsed Jared Polis, the Democratic candidate for governor.

The endorsement is not a surprise given that teachers unions have traditionally been associated with the Democratic Party. However, the 35,000-member Colorado Education Association had previously endorsed one of Polis’ rivals during the primary, former state Treasurer Cary Kennedy, and contributed money toward negative ads that portrayed Polis as a supporter of vouchers based on a 2003 op-ed, in spite of votes in Congress against voucher programs.

With the primary in the past, CEA President Amie Baca-Oehlert focused on Polis’ support for more school funding, a priority shared by the union.

“Our members share Jared’s concern that too many communities don’t have the resources they need for every child to succeed,” Baca-Oehlert said in the press release announcing the endorsement. “We have created ‘haves and have-nots’ among our children, and nowhere is that more apparent than with our youngest students who don’t receive the same level of quality early childhood education. Jared impressed us with his strong commitment to give all kids a great start and better prepare them for a successful lifetime of learning.”

Polis has made expanding access to preschool and funding full-day kindergarten a key part of his education platform, along with raising pay for teachers.

Polis is running against Republican Walker Stapleton. As state treasurer, Stapleton advocated for changes to the public employee retirement system, including freezes on benefits and cost-of-living raises, that were opposed by the teachers union, something Baca-Oehlert made note of in the endorsement of Polis.

Read more about the two candidates’ education positions here.