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Leshundra Robinson, a Memphis organizer for The Campaign for School Equity, speaks with a parent in Memphis' Whitehaven community.

Leshundra Robinson, a Memphis organizer for The Campaign for School Equity, speaks with a parent in Memphis’ Whitehaven community.

Caroline Bauman

With new name but same mission, rebranded black education advocacy group introduces itself to Memphis

Memphis, what’s going on in your schools?

That’s the question being asked by a Tennessee organization promoting school choice for low-income and working-class black families.

The Campaign for School Equity, formerly known as the Tennessee chapter of the Black Alliance for Educational Options, on Thursday evening kicked off meetings planned across the city to introduce the rebranded group to the community.

The first gathering drew about a dozen people to Whitehaven Community Center, and more monthly meetings are planned for other neighborhoods in North and South Memphis.

The new organization opted to break off from its national parent in late June to focus on expanding high-quality education options across Tennessee.

Mendell Grinter, who has remained the group’s executive director in the transition, said the neighborhood gatherings will help his staff take the pulse of parents and other community members on issues related to education. The group is a proponent of school turnaround efforts through the state-run Achievement School District and Shelby County Schools’ Innovation Zone. It also lobbied the state legislature for vouchers that would have allowed poor students in low-performing schools to use public funding to pay private school tuition — a proposal that failed again during this year’s session.

“We just want to know: What’s happening in our Whitehaven schools?” Leshundra Robinson, a Memphis organizer for the group, asked at its first neighborhood meeting, which drew parents, clergy and a city official.

City Councilman Edmund Ford, who is also a math teacher, talked about overcrowding in classrooms at Central High School as the school year began.

“We’re out of chairs at my school. … We go through this every year,” Ford said. “We need more awareness of how important attendance is in first 20 days and how it impacts planning around how to zone schools. Other schools have far too many open seats.”

Others described confusion and misinformation regarding options available through Shelby County Schools and the state-run Achievement School District. One example was Hillcrest High, which opened this month as an ASD charter operated by Green Dot Public Schools. Hillcrest has been a source of contestation about tactics used by Shelby County Schools to retain students.

“It’s not about pitting one type of school against the other,” said Percy Hunter, who is Green Dot’s parent and community engagement coordinator and the pastor of nearby Christ United Baptist Church. “Memphis is a place where we all need to be in this together, and that starts with informed discussion. We need more spaces like this where we can show up and talk together about what our schools need.”

Moving forward, Grinter said, parent empowerment and student engagement will be a priority for the nonprofit organization, which is funded through several local philanthropic groups.

For more information on upcoming community events, visit The Campaign for School Equity’s Facebook page.