Sarah Carpenter, Memphis Lift
Sarah Carpenter is the executive director of Memphis Lift, a parent advocacy organization in Memphis, Tennessee. Sarah spoke to Emily Freitag about the importance of schools partnering closely with students’ families to support learning for all students.
Watch or read the full conversation below.
EF: Let’s start with a personal learning story from either your own experience, or maybe from one of your kids or grandkids.
SC: When every school in my neighborhood was failing, a new model of school came to our city. I sat in a room with 150 people talking about the concept of this school coming into our neighborhood, and people didn’t want that school to come here. I knew it needed to come here. I knew something had to change in our community and I stood up against people that I cared about and said, “We need this.” The school opened up in my community in 2002. What works is when we change our mindset about change. When you can change your mindset and have an open mind, things will work out for children. And I’ve been fighting for the last 25+ years.
I knew I wanted my granddaughter to go to a better school. My granddaughter’s experience at that school was amazing. My dad passed away when I was nine years old and my mom didn’t talk about college because she was trying to make ends meet. But walking into my granddaughter’s school every day, they always talked about college. In her classroom, they would say “2010” and then they would scream out “college!” So I’m like, she’s going to college. I had to run back home and tell my daughter that her daughter can go to college. It was about a massive change in breaking cycles in my family. So that’s what I know works—when parents can make informed decisions about where their children go to school, and people respect the parents’ decision where they want to send their kids to school. That’s what we did when we decided to send my granddaughter to that school. She’s the first college graduate in four generations in my family, and her younger sister went to the same school and finished college, too.
EF: What do you think works in building a stronger relationship between parents and schools?
SC: Parents play an important role. You have got to let them play a role and bring them to the table. That’s the only way our school system can work. I have looked at schools that are really doing well in this city. At the level 5 schools, I see parents at school all day. Then I come to inner-city, and I don’t see parents at these schools. Now’s the time to build the teacher-parent relationship, and the whole institution needs to build a relationship with parents to make it work. I’m crazy enough to believe when the people in power change their mindset about parents, that’s when things will begin to change.
EF: What does it take to make that happen?
SC: What’s so unique about Memphis Lift is that we are the same parents that we serve. We are those same parents that somebody believed in to start the organization. We are the people closest to the problem. I truly believe the people closest to the problem can fix the problem.
EF: What are you seeing within the Memphis lift family right now? How are kids doing?
SC: We are struggling. I’ll say it again: We are the parents that we serve. I’ve had a ninth-grader and eighth-grader here with me every day, and now my ninth-grader goes to a pod. There’s so much that we don’t know as parents. We’re not educators. The school has got to help the parents navigate virtual learning. I said that I need help, and this is where you can help me. I laid it out. I need help knowing what’s missing. I’m sitting there and I’m trying to work also. Our parents are struggling trying to work, and they they can’t keep up. The schools have to communicate with the families that they serve.
EF: What doesn’t work? Can you give us some examples?
SC: What doesn’t work is when people don’t partner with families. We still struggle with that where the communication lines are not open with our district. And it’s not just in Memphis, I talk to parents everywhere. They’re not communicating like they should with parents, and they have to remember that we are not educated. And I say that boldly, that we’re not educated and we need help navigating this thing.
I also see parents struggling with COVID, with losing family members—we lost two parents in a week. Kim has been on my mind since I heard this news. She had five children and a three-week-old baby, and she passed away. What’s going to happen with these children? So, we’re dealing with the fear of COVID. And we’re dealing with people that don’t understand that we got a right to be afraid because it’s hitting our community three times harder than any other community. People have been calling me asking, “What do you think about kids going back to school?” I don’t agree with it until we get this pandemic under control. We have a right to be afraid when you turn on the news and you see how many black and brown people are getting COVID and dying from COVID. When we learn to respect each other’s opinions, we can move forward. They have got to respect our opinion about sending our kids back to school. I myself have underlying issues. I’m afraid. I’m totally afraid.
EF: I’m so sorry to hear about Kim and the other parents. I’m wondering what you want educators to know. I hear you saying, “I want you to listen to me with respect.” I hear you saying, “I want you to communicate with me more clearly.” What else do you want from schools?
SC: I want our school and district leaders to know that we are in this thing together and we want to partner with you. We’re not here to to run anything. We just want you to know how we feel and we want you to know what we know works for our children. They need us because what they’ve been doing is not working. So, try it our way. We get caught up in egos around, “These parents don’t know what they’re talking about.” Yes, we do. We know our children better than you. And if you help us navigate this thing, I believe our children will be successful and your district will be successful. And I just want them to know we’re in this to partner with you, not to tell you what to do.
EF: A lot of people are talking about this being an opportunity to rethink school in some ways that are long overdue. What are you hearing from parents about what they want the new normal to look like? How do you want it to be different?
SC: I want that new normal because what we left wasn’t normal. Our kids were failing. I want the new normal to look like schools listening to parents, and kids going to school. And when they leave that school, they can read and they can do math on grade-level. That’s what I want. Give parents the resources they need at home, because you can’t tell me that if you tell me my eighth-grader is reading on a first-grade reading level, that I as a grandparent or a parent won’t try to help that child to try to get where they need to be. We need the resources at home. I would also like to see teachers get the support that they need. If you have a young teacher coming into school for the first time to teach children, especially low-income underserved children, you got to train them how to deal with those children and how to teach those children.
EF: Is there anything about your kids’ or grandkids’ teachers that you have loved that you feel like really made them stand out?
SC: I live in this community, so I would drive through this community often, and sometimes the teachers were in those buildings until nine o’clock at night getting ready for the next day. I’ve seen teachers loving on kids. When kids had issues at home, they stepped in to help those kids. I have seen kids lose parents, and they were right there with those kids. That’s how you build a relationship. I see some of those kids now, and they still bring that up. Teachers with empathy, not sympathy, but empathy for children, and loving on children and nurturing children—that’s what made a school a success.
EF: What is giving you hope during this unbelievable time? What stories are inspiring you?
SC: Parents are rising up and saying, “I want this for my child.” We have monthly meetings with our parents to give them the information that they need. When you give parents the tools they need, they can stand up. We’re not in this fight as an advocacy organization. We’re here to train our parents. Once our parents get trained, they can go out and fight. We’ll fight with them, but if we educate them, they’ll know what they’re fighting for and we can go and have their backs. I have got hope that sooner or later, people are going to listen to parents from a federal level, a local level, and district level. I have that hope because parents are not going be quiet anymore.