What’s in a name?
For Memphis Education Fund, it’s everything. The organization once was known as Teacher Town but its leaders changed the name last year to better reflect its mission of fueling teachers, schools and communities.
The Memphis Education Fund works to enhance the serious work to improve the bottom 10 percent of schools in the Bluff City by providing alignment across sectors of the education community in an effort to lead to a more integrated and accountable approach to improving the schools.
Memphis Education Fund works in partnership with the Shelby County Schools district and Achievement School District by supporting targeted innovation, inspiration and investment in teachers and schools and the communities they work.
“When you think about it you hear Teacher Town and you think they must recruit teachers,” said Tosha Downey, director of advocacy for Memphis Education Fund. “For us we needed a name that was inspirational and aspirational.”
Memphis Education Fund works with partners to support public schools. It works to place strong teachers in every classroom, increase access to quality schools and engaging community stakeholders in the education process.
Memphis Education Fund started as Teacher Town, which was an idea at a time that Shelby County Schools and the Achievement School District were working to transform the lowest-performing schools.
“To get it happening in earnest you have to have talent,” Downey said. “So the core work was to recruit talented teachers to make Memphis Teacher Town.”
There was an effort to grow the work around building better schools beyond just teachers, including creating a policy environment at both the grassroots and grasstops levels. Marcus Robinson came on as CEO in summer 2016 and the conversation around the name change picked up steam.
“We needed to be a place where the most talented wanted to come so Teacher Town was the right name at inception,” Downey said. “The work was always multifaceted in that way in school supplies, teachers and advocacy.”
The Memphis Education Fund represents the holistic body of work and the commitment to finding resources to invest in it while being strategic to see the work completed. The organization raises funds to invest in organizations locally doing the work. The initial focus was on schools in the bottom 5 percent. But what about the other schools in the bottom 10 percent?
The organization’s leaders knew they needed to find ways to help those schools, too. So the task was to partner with local and national organizations to create resources for leadership in the county’s iZone schools as well as various charter networks that are growing.
The organization also wants to attract charter organizations not yet in Memphis to help them transition to the Bluff City.
“That’s part of the idea of investing in schools,” Downey said. “In the same way there are organizations that support quality teachers, we also support Teach for America and Memphis Teacher Residency; there are all kinds of organizations that help recruit, retain and develop teachers.”
One of the biggest challenges for Memphis Education Fund is raising money, particularly for some of the more challenged communities. Another one is overcoming pre-conceived notions some teacher recruits from outside the city might have about Memphis.
“We have to grow our own talent but at the same time we have to recruit talent. And whatever opinion people have about Memphis isn’t justified but people believe it,” Downey said. “So overcoming that is one of the challenges.”
Memphis Education Fund invests in partners that have a similar goal of changing the way systems approach school improvement. The partners work in three areas – teachers, schools and communities. That means placing strong teachers in every classroom. It also means expanding access to great schools. And finally, it works with organizations that can empower communities with advocacy and education.
The Memphis Education Fund isn’t the only organization working in school transformation. And the work has been done in some form across the country.
But in Memphis the work is focused on school transformation for the most vulnerable.
“We’re not doing anything radical but what’s different about our work is we are the only city and only organization committed to schools in the bottom 5 percent,” Downey said. “We do want every kid to have opportunities, but we really want low-income students in low-performing schools to have opportunities. It doesn’t mean closing schools. It means investing in schools so they’re better.”