A path to economic mobility: The More for Memphis plan for schools to become true community hubs

Over the next several months, the High Ground Team will be diving deep into the More for Memphis plan: What it is, why it is, and where it's taking us. This week, we take a look at Education and Youth, one of the six focus areas critical to the initiative's success.
On Wednesday, Nov. 15, 2023, members of the More for Memphis Governing Body gathered at the headquarters of Junior Achievement of Memphis and the Mid-South to review the More for Memphis strategic plan to enhance economic mobility opportunities for Black and Brown communities throughout Memphis and Shelby County. A vote was held, resulting in the plan’s approval, and three working groups began the six-month process of transitioning the initiative from planning to implementation.

“Our next steps are to continue working with organizations, the public sector, and residents to finalize how we will transition from planning to authentic implementation,” says Jamilica Burke, chief strategy and impact officer of Seeding Success, the Memphis nonprofit responsible for coordinating the More for Memphis initiative.

“We are excited to see More for Memphis in action.”

While the More for Memphis plan itself will be published in its official form later this spring, the fundamentals of the initiative, the strategic plan overview, can now be accessed online via the More for Memphis website

That such an important vote to the More for Memphis process was held at the Junior Achievement nonprofit is not for nothing; Memphis youth are among the initiative’s highest priorities. One of the plan’s underlying strategies for improving economic mobility for Memphis’ Black and Brown communities is found in its “cradle-to-career” approach. The strategies for improved economic mobility, 35 in total, were developed to increase opportunity for young people along every step of their development, from the time that they’re born and into the future.

Those strategies were developed by six Anchor Collaboratives, groups of community stakeholders ranging from nonprofit executives to high school students. They’re grouped by the following focus areas: Education & Youth; Economic Development; Arts & Culture; Community Development; Health & Well-Being; and Justice & Safety.

“More for Memphis is a public-private partnership with a race equity focus, so we have representation across the community and across multiple sectors, along with the input of policymakers and elected officials who helped to make sure that the strategies in the strategic plan could be sustained beyond any particular administration,” Burke says.

'The heart of the community'

There are seven total strategies in the Education & Youth bucket, the most among the six focus areas. That’s no surprise, given the initiative’s cradle-to-career approach in developing community-centered and community-sourced solutions. They include addressing school discipline disparities; eliminating barriers to entry for advanced courses; reducing chronic absenteeism; improving early literacy outcomes; addressing teacher shortages; expanding postsecondary preparation; and leveraging the Community Schools model. Each strategy identifies a problem, presents a solution, and then lays out a plan for how it will be funded and implemented. The Anchor Collaborative also provides set criteria and metrics to judge how things are going. Implement these strategies, the Education & Youth (E&Y) team attests, and it’s expected that Memphis will see a 10 percent reduction in school suspensions and a 10 percent decrease in chronic absenteeism in just five years' time.

While each of the seven E&Y strategies are critical to improving economic mobility for Black and Brown Memphians, the county-wide adoption of a Community Schools model stands to have the broadest reach – and perhaps deepest. Such a model not only affects and informs E&Y, but many of the other focus areas, too.

“If you go across the other focus areas and their strategies – school-based enrichment opportunities, restorative justice, how to increase funding for advocacy – now you have an actual plan by which you center people, families and children, and a clear pathway by which you can see the impact that you intend. The Community Schools model centers families and centers children so that all of those things can happen,” says Teshanda Middleton, project lead for the E&Y Anchor Collaborative and CEO of the Communities In Schools of Memphis nonprofit organization.

The Community Schools model achieves this by recognizing that schools aren’t just single-purpose buildings but rather multi-use hubs for the community at large. The model infuses education, community, and social services all in one place, with each aspect tailored to the community that it serves. Of course schoolchildren and their families stand to benefit, but so too do those in the neighborhood without children. Elsewhere in the More for Memphis plan, as but one example, the Health & Well-Being Anchor Collaborative recommends installing school-based health centers as a way to improve the health and wellness of Memphians who are otherwise underserved, further leveraging schools and their place in the community.

“How do you help create neighborhoods and communities that are desirable places to live, work, and play? It’s using resources within a community to ensure that whatever the need is, that there's a space and a place for it to be addressed," Middleton says. "And so when you think about the heart of the community where people exist, you have your schools, right? The Community Schools model, which in itself is a national model that has been successfully implemented all over the country, is centered on four pillars to ensure that families and communities have access to the resources that they need.”

'Education is that pathway'

Ensuring that communities have access to the resources that they need is no easy task; think of every neighborhood in Memphis, every community in Shelby County, and each with their own unique set of challenges faced on a day-to-day basis. And that’s where the Community Schools model comes in, with each neighborhood hub coordinated to respond specifically to their respective residents, be it academically or otherwise.

Even within the Education & Youth focus area, adoption of the Community Schools model stands to improve the odds for successfully implementing the other six strategies identified. Take literacy as an example. Michael Phillips, executive director of Su Casa Family Ministries and a member of the Education & Youth anchor collaborative, is raising a bilingual family. His young daughter, however, wasn’t able to attend a pre-kindergarten program, at least in part, because she spoke two languages. She used English for some words, and Spanish for others. Being bilingual is incredible in its own right, let alone for someone who’s in preschool, but the school wasn’t prepared for it and she wasn’t accepted into the program.

“Her literacy was being evaluated on the basis of her English-only literacy,” Phillips says. “The average kid at her age, to be considered advanced is knowing something like 10,000 words. So she may have only had 7,000 words in English, but she might have had 7,000 additional words in Spanish. She’d be a 14,000-word-kid, which is very advanced. But they weren't assessing her in a way that they can see that.”

The More for Memphis plan calls for adoption of the Community Schools model at public and charter schools alike. And there’s real potential for it becoming more and more a reality, as the Memphis-Shelby County Schools district’s Destination 2025 plan demonstrates their intentions to expand the model within the district. The E&Y Anchor Collaborative recommends that More for Memphis and MSCS coordinate their efforts and align their goals for further implementing the Community Schools model.

“At the end of this, the bigger goal for More for Memphis is putting people on a pathway to economic mobility. And so for us, education is that pathway,” Middleton says. “How you do that is being intentional about the support that you spread across generations of people.”

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