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Seeing needs beyond good teachers, Teacher Town Memphis changes its approach and its name

Offices for Memphis Education Fund collaborators are housed in a downtown Memphis building known as Teacher Town Commons.
Offices for Memphis Education Fund collaborators are housed in a downtown Memphis building known as Teacher Town Commons.
Marta W. Aldrich

A Memphis philanthropic collaborative is revising its public image as its leaders rethink the ways they want to help the city’s schools change.

Teacher Town is becoming the Memphis Education Fund and adopting the goal of improving the lowest-scoring 10 percent of schools in the city, the group announced this month.

The collaborative was created in 2014 by Memphis education leaders with local philanthropists. The goal was to transform Memphis into a destination city for talented teachers, a vision that built on a major investment by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to improve teaching in the city.

But as those efforts unfolded, Teacher Town leaders realized that hiring and training new teachers alone would not transform local schools.

“There is a strong correlation between great schools and great school leadership,” said Marcus Robinson, who recently became the organization’s first full-time CEO. “If we are serious about recruiting and retaining the most talented teachers, we have to be equally committed to developing the principals and central office administrators they need to coach, support, and motivate them.”

In response, the group decided to broaden its causes to include training principals, supporting Shelby County Schools’ efforts to improve some of the district’s lowest-performing schools, and engaging the community in school improvement efforts.

Now, the fund is in the middle of spending $10 million to help Shelby County Schools overhaul struggling schools through its Innovation Zone. It’s also giving money to help schools in the state-run Achievement School District serve students with disabilities.

Other grants have gone to organizations that help to train principals or work to engage families in school improvement efforts. The fund’s website lists 22 local and national organizations receiving support, including the parent organizing groups Memphis Lift and Stand for Children Tennessee.

Rather than holding money on its own, the fund identifies grantees and then works with donors to support them directly. The money is managed by the Community Foundation of Greater Memphis, a nonprofit organization overseeing about a thousand charitable funds.

A 2014 report in The Stanford Social Innovation Review lists three of the city’s leading philanthropies — the Hyde Family, Poplar and Pyramid Peak foundations — among the fund’s founders. The organization does not publish a list of its current donors, some of whom prefer to remain anonymous, Robinson said.

A charter leader from Indianapolis, Marcus Robinson spent two years as the CEO of the Memphis Education Fund, a philanthropic collaborative that invests in education improvement initiatives for Memphis schools. He is now leaving for St. Louis.
Memphis Education Fund CEO Marcus Robinson is former CEO of Tindley Accelerated Schools in Indianapolis.
Matt Detrich/The Indianapolis Star

(Disclosure: Hyde and Pyramid Peak also support Chalkbeat. Learn about our funding here. Chalkbeat also rents office space in Teacher Town Commons, a working space where the fund’s leaders and many of its partners keep offices.)

Similar funds in other cities sometimes take a narrower approach. Chicago’s education fund tackles one issue at a time, right now focusing on issues related to principals, for example. Memphis is trying to tackle multiple issues at one time, Robinson said.

“Memphis is trying to improve education quality at a different scale,” he said. “Our work is commensurate with the kinds of ideas happening in Shelby County.”

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