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A table set up at a screening of a documentary about the parent trigger act.

A table set up at a screening of a documentary about the parent trigger act.

At school closings meetings, school choice groups learn the lay of the land in Memphis

The school district auditorium in midtown Memphis was crowded Tuesday night, as the Shelby County school board’s debate over which schools to close before the 2014-15 school year reached its culmination. For many of the students, parents, alumni, teachers, community members, and media present, this was the last in a series of community meetings about the closings over the past two months.

Near the section of room marked for district officials, under a sign that read “Remember, it’s all about our students,” sat some another group of people who had been to almost as many meetings as anyone in the room: Field organizers for StudentsFirst and Parent Revolution, two school choice advocacy groups.

Representatives from at least one of the school choice advocacy groups in Memphis attended nearly every meeting. Parent Revolution, the Black Alliance for Educational Options (BAEO), StudentsFirst, and Stand For Children were among the groups that attended the meetings.

The 140,000-student Shelby County Schools plans to close ten schools next year as part of an effort to “right-size” the district. District officials considered closing as many as 13 schools, citing declining enrollment, deteriorating facilities, and low academic performance. Some forms of school choice in Shelby County, including the growing charter school sector and the new state-run school district, have contributed to declining enrollment in some of the district’s lowest-performing schools.

The school closings meetings drew passionate crowds of Memphians, many of whom are not currently affiliated with any of the advocacy groups. Many of the protesters are connected to schools ranked in the bottom five or 10 percent in the state – the same group of schools targeted by the vouchers and  within the group targeted by the parent trigger law, which would include the bottom 20 percent of schools.

Not every group was present at every meeting. But organizers said the meetings allowed them to understand the issues affecting Memphis parents and schools.

“Being new to Memphis, we have a lot of ground to cover,” said Jennifer Littlejohn, the state director for BAEO. “It’s been important that we’re listening, that we’re attending events that are important to parents. If a school is closing and there’s an opportunity to convert it to a charter school, we want them to understand what that means and what that looks like.”

Mario King, a field coordinator for StudentsFirst in Shelby County, attended several closings meetings, including Tuesday night’s vote.

“We’re always searching for new outreach – but we don’t want to capitalize or engage in anything that comes out of anything that could be negative,” said StudentsFirst’s King. “We don’t search for new members at meetings like that. We ask, how can we step in and be effective and make this better.”

But, he said, “It gave me an opportunity to meet the superintendent, to have one-on-one conversation with parents about school choice and parent empowerment and so on. I was able to really capitalize on the school meetings by meeting those parents,” he said.

Those focused on the closings had mixed feelings about the groups’ presence. “I’ve met them,” said Katrina Thompson, who helped organize the efforts to remove Northside from the closings list, of Parent Revolution. “There are some parts of what they’re talking about that I’m not in agreement with. I think parents should be involved, but as an educator, I know parents don’t have enough information about education of children because that’s not their background. ”

“Most of people don’t even know that they’re there,” Thompson said. “But I’m sure sure he’ll be reaching out now that Northside’s staying open.”

After last night’s closing meeting, Bridget Bradley, the president of the PTO at Westhaven Elementary School, said that she was approached by a StudentsFirst representative, but she was so distraught about the district’s plan to close her school that “I really couldn’t talk right then.”

Each of the advocacy groups has its own set of priorities, but several are promoting changes that could reshape the educational landscape in Tennessee.

Parent Revolution is focused on a new parent trigger bill, which would reduce the number of parents who must sign a petition to convert a public school into a charter or to use that threat as leverage to encourage the district to improve the school if they’ve gained a critical mass of students. Tennessee already has a parent trigger law, but it requires more than 60 percent of parents in a school to sign on.

StudentsFirst is supporting the new parent trigger bill and a new school voucher bill as part of its a slate of priorities. BAEO also supports vouchers and the trigger bill change.The Tennessee Federation for Children, which promotes school vouchers, even shared a meeting space with a school closings protest earlier this month. Stand For Children is currently promoting just the Common Core State Standards and is agnostic on those school choice laws.

StudentsFirst has 35,000 members in Tennessee, according to Calvin Harris, a spokesman for the group. The group does not have a current estimate of how many of those members are in Memphis.

The Black Alliance for Educational Options (BAEO) opened its Tennessee chapter in January. “Tennessee is the next mecca for education reform,” said Littlejohn. “We support school choice in Tennessee and want to empower black families around school choice.”

BAEO also supported a school choice rally last week, which used a program that allowed participants to send an email to their legislator supporting school choice via text message. Littlejohn said the group was too new to have an official tally of members.

Parent Revolution also arrived in Memphis in January.

Marydee Moran, the regional campaigns director for Parent Revolution, said that she thought the parent trigger law could fill a gap in the education reform movement here. “There’s still a sort of top-down drive to reforms and things that are happening to the community, rather than ground-up,” she said. She said Parent Revolution’s goal was to train parents and enable them to have more control over the changes to schools in their community. The group has just 15 or so members so far, but has been canvassing and hopes to recruit more parents.

At a screening of a documentary about the parent trigger law hosted by Parent Revolution, a small but engaged crowd questioned StudentsFirst representatives, a BAEO field organizer, state representative John Deberry, a Democrat, and one of the parents who promoted the original parent trigger bill in California. In the crowd were Northside and Westhaven community members, who heard about the screening at the closings meetings.

Bradley, the Westhaven PTO president, asked Deberry if the trigger bill would help keep Westhaven open it is current form. “I don’t want a charter,” she said. She said after the meeting that she had decided she couldn’t support the parent empowerment bill.

Stand For Children, which has been in Memphis since 2005, recently reorganized and is currently focusing on promoting the Common Core State Standards rather than actively promoting the voucher law or parent trigger; the group just hired a new executive director and a new Memphis director, Cardell Orrin. “We’re just monitoring,” Orrin said. Orrin said that since Stand For Children is in transition, “we didn’t want to come in and get halfway involved.”

Stand For Children’s Orrin noted how many parents and community members had organized themselves around the school closings. “They’ve done it on their own,” he said. “We need to see if they want training, if they want to move forward after this issue – how do we support them and that community.

At a rally at Cane Creek Baptist Church earlier this month, Michael Benjamin, the director of the Tennessee Federation of Children, spoke to a thinning crowd who had just listened to superintendent Dorsey Hopson defend the need to close schools and a parent leading a protest against the closures. Representatives from StudentsFirst and Parent Revolution were in the audience for his presentation, though most of the protesters left before Benjamin’s presentation.

Benjamin asked the thinning crowd to support a voucher bill, which did not pass last year. “They said Memphis didn’t support vouchers,” he said. “They said black folks didn’t support vouchers. No matter what our differences are, we have to come together on the kid issue. The only thing we need to focus on is not private, public, charter – it’s are we giving more opportunities to parents to put kids in best environment possible.” He asked the audience members to send a text message that would automate an email to a congressperson.

Superintendent Hopson, when asked about the connection to the school choice event and his speech on the closings, said, “No, no, I’m not part of that.

Correction: An earlier version of this article referred to the advocacy group Parent Revolution as Parent Empowerment. The bill the group is lobbying for is the Parent Empowerment Act.

Clarification: Representatives from at least one of the school choice advocacy groups in Memphis attended the majority of the school closings meetings; not every group was at every meeting.