With the 2023-24 school year and August’s special session around the corner, thousands of students, families, and teachers are facing challenges from the punitive Third Grade Retention law that took effect this year. To share information and gather stories, Stand for Children, MICAH, and Momentum Memphis are participating in Statewide Organizing for Community eMpowerment (SOCM)’s #MoreThanATest Day of Action with a canvass on Saturday, July 15.

We demand that the third-grade retention law be placed as a priority at the legislative special session this summer. Retention decisions should be determined by those that know our students best and should consider their entire academic performance, instead of basing the decision on a single standardized test. This Saturday, we will hear from teachers, parents, and students about the effects of this retention law.

We repeat: our students are so much more than a test!

According to the MSCS Handbook, possession of pepper spray is a suspendible offense, yet the adults in charge of protecting student safety are free to use this harmful chemical agent against students at their discretion with little to no accountability. This excessive use of force by school officers and/or school resource officers (SROs) to break up a fight between students at Melrose perpetuates a toxic culture of criminalizing and endangering youth in schools under the misguided assumption that adult-inflicted violence somehow makes young people safer.

In 2021, Momentum Memphis worked alongside students to call on the Board of Education to remove law enforcement acting as SROs from all public schools in our “Counselors Not Cops” campaign. To our great disappointment, after all that effort the Board voted unanimously to renew their contract with the Shelby County Sheriff’s Office. This decision effectively puts our students in danger of unnecessary interaction with law enforcement, often without parental consent.

This school year, school officers and/or SROs have been using pepper spray against young people at an alarming frequency–almost once a week by the District’s own numbers. It should go without saying that chemical agents should never be used against our students. By doing so, the school officers, SROs, and other adults in charge are setting a dangerous example– effectively saying that using more violence is the best way to resolve conflict. When students respond to conflict with more violence, they face the risk of  suspension  or even expulsion; yet the adults responsible for ensuring student safety face little to no consequences when they respond with violence. 

In October 2022, Board Member Sheleah Harris called on the rest of the Board to pass a Code of Conduct for school security staff that would hold them to a higher standard. We stand with Board Member Harris, and we stress that the Code of Conduct would include requirements for trauma-informed de-escalation training and practices. 

Security staff have a responsibility to protect ALL students, including those who may be in conflict with each other. We will continue to advocate with and for our young people so that these violent incidents become things of the past, paving the way for prevention and restorative justice to come first and foremost. 

Here is your monthly friendly reminder to join us for our virtual joint Momentum Memphis Education Task-Force meeting on Monday, October 4, at 6:00 pm via Zoom.  Hear task-force leaders give updates on our advocacy campaigns, meet our community change partners, and learn how you can get involved in our efforts to make education equity a reality for all students in Memphis and Shelby County. Please use this link to RSVP.

You’re also invited to hear Memphis Director Cardell Orrin speak at the Hooks Institute Prohibited Concepts in Instruction in Public Schools Created by Tennessee Law on Tuesday, October 5, at 6:00 pmIf you didn’t know, Gov. Bill Lee passed a law banning 14 concepts in instruction that appear to significantly limit how educators can teach students accurate, fact-based, American History in the classroom. Memphis Director Cardell Orrin and other panelists will be discussing these changes and more via the Hook’s Institute Facebook page. Please use this link to RSVP.

Here is your friendly reminder to join us for our virtual joint Momentum Memphis Education Task-Force meeting on Monday, August 2nd, at 6:00 pm via Zoom. Hear task-force leaders give updates on our advocacy campaigns, meet our community change partners, and learn how you can get involved in our efforts to make education equity a reality for all students in Memphis and Shelby County. Please use this link to RSVP.

Did you miss our virtual Reimagining Student Safety webinar we hosted this Wednesday? No worries, we’ve got you covered! You can watch this and our other on-demand broadcasts by visiting our Stand For Children Facebook page.

Momentum Memphis Task Force launched a survey to the community at the end of 2020 as the decision to reopen schools in Shelby County was being considered by officials for the Spring of 2021.

Parents were given the option to either return to school buildings or remain virtual. Our goal was to highlight the experiences and concerns of SCS families moving forward in the event of extended virtual or hybrid learning into the spring, the rest of the 2020-2021 school year, and beyond, as well as to communicate the shifting need to examine the more nuanced barriers in a potential long-term hybrid models with an increased amount of families opting to keep their kids at home.

The areas of these concerns include:

• Supervision and support from a family member or qualified adult

• Reliable internet access

• Mental health and behavioral issues associated with virtual learning

• Academic and instructional support

• Consistent, dedicated, and quiet space for schoolwork

Upon examining survey results, here are the most pressing concerns from parents and families in Shelby County as it relates to childcare and student support. If you have any questions or comments about our Parent Perspective Survey, feel free to email us at [email protected].

Momentum Memphis YES Fund Task Force Leaders Meili Powell & Haley Mathews both have published op-eds in The Commercial Appeal and The Daily Memphian!

Check out their pieces on the Youth Education Success (YES) Fund and why it’s important to invest in the future of our student’s education so that they can have equitable opportunities for success.

YES Fund Task Force Leader Meili Powell’s Op-Ed: https://www.commercialappeal.com/…/disinves…/7698480002/

YES Fund Task Force Leader Haley Mathews Op-Ed: https://dailymemphian.com/…/opinion-when-teachers-get…

Want to learn more about the YES Fund and how you join us in our efforts to being education equity to Shelby County Schools? Click here to visit our website.

Here is your friendly reminder to join us for our virtual joint Momentum Memphis Education Task-Force meeting on Monday, April 5th, via Zoom at 6:00 pm. Hear updates on our advocacy efforts from task-force leaders and learn how you can get involved in our fight to make education equity a reality for all students in Memphis and Shelby County. Please use this link to RSVP.

If you haven’t already, please consider taking our SCS Childcare and Back to School Perspective Survey. Shelby County Schools has resumed in-person learning for the spring semester, and we want to hear your feedback on the matter! Let us know your thoughts on continuing distance learning at home by taking the survey today!

As part of our continued fight against racial injustice in our community, Stand Tennessee has recently joined as an organizational member of the Dignity in Schools Campaign, a national coalition focused solely on dismantling the school-to-prison pipeline. 

DSC members work to transform their communities, support alternatives to a culture of zero-tolerance, punishment, criminalization, and the dismantling of public schools, and fight racism and all forms of oppression through direct action organizing, public policy advocacy, and leadership development.

To continue the work locally, we’ve joined with two Memphis-based youth advocacy partners, Bridge Builders CHANGE and Shelby County Youth Council, to develop a strategy to remove law enforcement officers and SROs from Shelby County Schools and increase mental health support for students such as additional school counselors and school social workers and increased funding for “Reset Rooms” as an alternative to punitive methods for addressing student behavior. With the help of Memphis Stand Director Cardell Orrin and lead Outreach Coordinator Paul Garner, these youth-led partnerships have established a “Counselors, Not Cops” campaign and have begun outreach to local legislators to accomplish our shared goals.

Here’s what lead outreach coordinator Paul Garner had to say about working with Bridge Builders Change and the Shelby County Youth Council:

“Having the opportunity to join and work with youth on this transformative intergenerational campaign has been an inspiring reminder of why we are committed to work for education equity. It’s exciting to join the planning calls each week to provide support to the CNC Youth Cohort as we develop strategy and action and meet with elected officials to ensure that all students in Shelby County, regardless of zip code, income, or race, have equitable access to comprehensive mental health services and to break the school to prison pipeline which often begins with policing in our schools.

Like many marginalized constituent groups, youth are often left out of conversations about policies and programs that affect them the most. When we do give youth a voice, it is filtered and through our perspective as adults. It has been a privilege to collaborate in a process where their voices are not just valued, but leads the conversation about solutions to the issues our young people face everyday.”

Learn more about the work our youth-based advocacy partners are doing to dismantle the school-to-prison pipeline in Memphis and Shelby County by watching this week’s episode of Cardell’s Soapbox on Wednesday, March 31st at 5:00 pm via Stand for Children’s Facebook Page.

Last fall, Stand member Dr. Crystal Harris created “This is 2020: Meaningful Stories, Artful Healing”, our first-ever student art showcase for which elementary, middle, and high school students in Memphis and Shelby County submitted more than 30 works of art to express their views on the global pandemic and racial injustice issues.  We recently sat down with Dr. Harris for a virtual discussion about her involvement in the showcase and her plans for the future.

Dominique Thomas, Memphis Communications and Community Engagement Manager:  Personally, what led you to develop an outlet for students to express themselves creatively about current events happening nationwide? Were you driven by a personal experience around any of the current events?

Dr. Crystal Harris:  The concept for This is 2020 started at [Stand Outreach Coordinator] Paul’s leader meeting. Originally, it was going to be an event focused on writing birthday cards for Breonna Taylor.  We wanted to give students the power to express themselves, give them  space to create.  I was born in Detroit and now live in Arkansas.  I experienced racism growing up.  I was called the “n-word” and thrown off the playground.  I understand what it feels like to be an outsider and to long for a way to process and express my feelings.  

As we talked more about what we wanted to do, it soon became clear that we needed to expand the parameters of the event.  As COVID-19 continued to unfold in our community, we saw the impact that it was making on students.  Some did not know how to be students during a pandemic.  So, we knew that we needed to provide students with an outlet for responding not only to racial injustice but also to the coronavirus pandemic and everything else that was happening. 

DT:  What has been your experience with expressing your feelings/views creatively? Is there anything from your past that led you to use creative expression as an outlet?

CH:  When I was a child, my friend was diagnosed with a rare form of cancer in her eye.  We were the same age and thought stuff like that didn’t happen to kids our age.  The poem “A Psalm of Life” by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow spoke to me in that moment and gave voice to what I was feeling.  I was encouraged by those words.

DT:  What emotions did you experience while viewing the student submissions? Did you connect emotionally to any of them? If so, what piece spoke to you the most?

CH:  The submission with the split drawings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor put me at a loss for words.  With the submission of the Black girl drawing, the artist talked about the Black girl’s features and her hair.  I loved the fact that the artist found beauty in the drawing, particularly in the moment of the pandemic.

DT:  What do/did you hope to achieve out of hosting this competition?

CH:  I wanted students to feel they were being heard.  I wanted to give them an outlet, a platform to feel as if they were being listened to at this particular moment.  I didn’t see it as a competition but more as a teaching moment.  I didn’t want to tell people how to explain their pain.  I wanted them to have free range to express themselves at this moment.

DT:  Now that the art competition is over, are there any plans to continue this event? What are your thoughts about the event now that it is over?

CH:  I didn’t expect a lot of people to show up and participate, so the number of submissions was a pleasant surprise.  I would like to do this again.  I received emails from young writers and artists telling me “thank you” for allowing this space of exposure and being glad that someone listened to them.

Potential topics for the next showcase include Black women, politics, voting, and any other topics students want to talk about.

DT:  What do you hope to see happen in the future about creative expression for students?

CH:  I hope that SCS [Shelby County Schools] will make a space or start a program for students to express themselves.

DT:  What other work are you doing in this space along the lines of engaging students to express themselves through art?

CH:  I have always been interested in creative expression and have done that with my students.  For example, I’ve done things like let students pick an informative quote and rap it to music.  Students are expected to be silent, and they’re not accustomed to expressing themselves confidentially.   I want to change that.  I think that teachers should implement social and emotional learning in their classrooms to provide a way for students to express themselves confidentially.  This would be beneficial for teachers, students, and their community.  Right now, unless they’re enrolled in creative writing, students have no training in artistic ways to express themselves.

DT:  How was it working with staff members of Stand for Children to bring your idea to life? Would you recommend others to collaborate with us to make their vision a reality?

CH:  Stand is a great outlet, and I’m thankful for the opportunity to do the art show full circle.  Working on This is 2020 served as validation of my experience regarding my childhood friend’s cancer that I mentioned earlier.  Also, I was impressed by how Stand is committed to education and likes to make sure that there are opportunities for kids.

Thank you, Dr. Harris, for taking time to talk with us.  We look forward to working with you to uplift student voices in the future!

Journalists and news outlets are looking for input from parents and community leaders to give their thoughts on the reopening of schools and how decisions from Shelby County Schools may impact students and their family’s lives.

That’s why we’re forming our Momentum Memphis Media Corps to provide parents a platform to speak out and voice their concerns on upcoming decisions from school district leaders and local government.

Members of the Momentum Memphis Media Corps will receive free media training from experienced Momentum Memphis Task Force leaders and public relations agency Pique PR.

If you’re interested in joining our Momentum Memphis Media Corps, please email our Communications and Community Engagement Manager, Dominique Thomas, at [email protected].