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More than grades: Memphis parents can use new guide to understand how children are doing in school

Executive Director Sarah Carpenter speaks at a press conference for parent advocacy organization Memphis Lift at district headquarters about upcoming conversation guides for parents and teachers to discuss a student’s academic progress created in collaboration with Shelby County Schools. March 22, 2021
Executive Director Sarah Carpenter speaks at a press conference for parent advocacy organization Memphis Lift at district headquarters about upcoming conversation guides for parents and teachers to discuss a student’s academic progress created in collaboration with Shelby County Schools.
Laura Faith Kebede / Chalkbeat

When Porsha Holloway attended “data nights” every few months at her children’s Memphis school, she left lost, with no real understanding of how her children were performing.

“It’s complicated,” Holloway told reporters Monday about learning progress for her four children at Vollentine Elementary. “The scariest part is not knowing.”

Seeing similar concerns from parents across the city, advocacy organization Memphis Lift collaborated with Shelby County Schools to create an “individual learning plan,” or a conversation guide for parents and teachers. Using the guide, parents and teachers can review a student’s attendance, reading, and math skills instead of just receiving grades or test results. Organization leaders hope that parents can better help their children improve if educators use more specific, bite-sized information in conversations during meetings.

Not understanding what grades and test results meant was always an issue but became more urgent during the pandemic, said Sarah Carpenter, Memphis Lift’s executive director. The district spent most of the year fully virtual during the pandemic and was the last in Tennessee to reopen classrooms earlier this month.

“The pandemic has shined a spotlight on so many inequities in our communities with our children and schools,” she said. “And now, parents that didn’t see, they’ve been sitting beside their children at home for almost a year and now they see.”

The guides are scheduled to debut in paper form in April, with digital forms coming in August as the new school year begins.

“That’s what we’ve been praying for,” Renee Smith said of the guides. Smith is the director of choice counseling for Memphis Lift and helps parents choose schools for their children. “We know our children are behind.”

Included in the guides are charts showing how close the student is to learning at grade level and what skills are needed to make up the difference. It also includes how many days the student has been absent each quarter. During the meetings, teachers are expected to ask students questions such as which skills have been the easiest or hardest to learn. Parents are asked to reflect on what would be helpful for the teacher to know about their child and how that might affect learning.

Currently, parents receive report cards and progress reports with letter grades and test results, but receive little information on what they mean, how parents can help at home, or how teachers can intervene to help students progress. The district did, however, recently add a checklist of reading skills a student has learned to report cards for students in kindergarten through second grade.

The district plans to share the guide with charter school leaders and the state-run Achievement School District.

“I think it’s very important that we as parents know that,” said Tamika Kerr, who has two children in charter schools. “When he needs help, I can’t help him because I don’t know how to do this.”

Shelby County Schools is working to create training for educators so they are familiar with the guide. Parents can request teachers use the guide, but teachers are not required to offer it.

In a statement, Shelby County Schools said they have tried to address learning loss all year through periodic Saturday academies, tutoring during fall and spring breaks, and asking county commissioners for $30 million to pay for services and staff to help students catch up.

“This collaboration further bridges the gap between home and school,” the statement said. “We know that this work cannot be done in isolation and we look forward to the continued support of our community stakeholders.”

The collaboration with Shelby County Schools started in the fall after Memphis Lift asked about 1,000 parents what their biggest concerns were in their children’s education. Learning loss was the top concern.

The district’s preliminary test data shows that more students are struggling with state requirements for learning in a virtual environment, but truly comparable data is hard to come by amid the historic disruption to education.

Charles Lampkin, a parent who served on the committee that collaborated with the district, said the guide creates a “level playing field for parents” when they are working with educators.

Before, “it felt like I was in a meeting where someone was talking down to me,” he said. “This document helps a parent better able to negotiate what’s going on and better understand and be involved.”

Below is a sample guide from Memphis Lift:

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