When Regenia Dowell learned from her son that Frayser High School would stop offering advanced math because it was no longer a requirement, she went straight to the parent-teacher association.
The new principal quickly reversed course and began offering the class again. Dowell is one of many parents and community members like her who advocate for students through PTAs and other parent organizations throughout Shelby County.
But like many PTA members throughout Shelby County, Dowell doesn’t know what to expect next year. Because of low test scores Frayser High School is being taken over by the state and renamed Martin Luther King Preparatory High School. She said she doesn’t know if the school will even have a PTA.
The uncertainty that Dowell faces is endemic across PTAs in Shelby County school districts this summer as six new municipalities form their own schools districts, the state-run Achievement School District takes over more academically-struggling schools, nine schools are closed and several new charter schools open.
Because of all the transition, parents are having a hard time learning about new initiatives at their schools or ways to get involved, several PTA members said.
Parental involvement has become an increasingly important priority in Shelby County Schools, one of the worst academically performing districts in the state. Principals will now be evaluated on parental engagement, as part of the state’s new principal evaluation system. This is in part because many experts say that increasing the quality of parental involvement is a key driver of student performance in the classroom.
When controlling for all other factors, such as teacher quality, a school with strong parental engagement increases student performance by an average of a third of a grade every year, for example, from a B to a B+, according to Joyce Epstein, the director of the Center on School, Family and Community Partnerships at Johns Hopkins University.
“It really adds up over time,” Epstein said. “We’re not talking about magic results, we’re talking about real kids learning and they learn incrementally over time.”
As districts merged, parents remained separate
When Memphis and Shelby County schools merged into one district last year, the PTA councils did not. Although a merged council would’ve meant more members, increased funding and greater influence, there wasn’t any legal reason the two PTA councils had to join together. So some members thought that, with all the uncertainty around whether municipal districts would break off, they should remain separate.
Some Memphis PTA board members never bought into the unified vision of the district. “We’re urban and they’re suburban. We don’t think the same way,” said Janice Robinson, the scholarship chair of the Memphis PTA Council. “We have more challenges.”
Terri Harris, president of the Shelby County PTA council, said that the Memphis PTA council is welcome to join, but her council is 95 years old and her members did not want to give up their charter. “Basically we just want our schools to have PTAs and those PTAs to be supported by a council where they are comfortable and they fit in,” Harris said.
Another difference between the groups was that the legacy Shelby County district required each of its schools to be affiliated with PTA. But many Memphis city schools had separate, Parent Teacher Organizations (PTOs), each with its own rules. So the new unified Shelby County School District dropped the requirement that all of its schools remain PTA affiliates.
Collierville High School, once a member of the Shelby County PTA, quickly became a PTO. PTOs are based at just one school and control all of their membership dues. “PTOs are like a Burger King franchise: everyone can operate however they want,” said Robinson. “They can make their own rules and do it their own way.”
But PTA members have to follow the national organization’s rules and pay a portion of their dues to support regional, state and national PTA services and events, such as last year when Shelby County PTA took more than 200 students at PTA schools on a trip to the capitol in Nashville.
When the six new suburban municipal districts formed, their local PTAs began to make plans to form separate PTA councils. Germantown PTA council has already separated from Shelby County and four of the five other districts are either in the process of breaking off, or are considering it. (Lakeland cannot form a PTA council because it only has one school and PTA rules require there to be at least three.)
Some Shelby County Schools parents who live in Germantown but will send their kids to Shelby County schools next year are choosing to volunteer for the Germantown PTA council, according to Carrie Ligon, the last president of the Germantown High School PTA. Ligon says she will move to the Germantown PTA next year with her daughter, after her son graduates.
“We’re just being fluid and flexible and trying to change right along with it,” said Harris, president of the Shelby County PTA council, which is losing schools to the new municipal district PTAs. “We will continue to serve the members that we can.”
But Harris expressed some disappointment that the new unified district dropped the requirement for schools to affiliate with the PTA because, she said, “That’s a policy that stands in other school systems throughout the country and it works quite well.”
The parents at each individual PTA benefit by collaborating and learning from parents at other schools across the district, state and even country, according to Harris. “When you go beyond your school level it gives you an opportunity to meet other people that have those same passions,” Harris said. “And it allows people that have different passions to work together in a collaborative nature. Good things come from that.”
Special education parents struggle to gather information
Chris Myers leads a special PTA in Shelby County: he’s president of SEPTA, the Special Education PTA that supports parents with special needs children. SEPTA worked across Memphis and Shelby school district lines in the past, even before the demerger. But now he says his PTA will be stretched thin to meet the needs of parents across eight districts.
“We’re going to have to appear before each board and tell them what we know and partner with them,” Myers said. “It’s going to make it eight times harder for us. Hopefully no parent will be left without the most current information but it’s definitely going to be a stretch.”
In addition to having to work with eight different districts, Myers said there is confusion about what kinds of services each district is going to offer special needs students. He said parents asked him more than a dozen questions at his most recently quarterly meeting that he couldn’t answer.
“Whoever has the keys to the kingdom and can share that, we want to know,” Myers said. “School is going to start in two months. My parents want to know what’s going to happen next year. And I keep telling them I don’t know and at some point we need to know and hopefully sooner than later.”
Myers said that many of his constituents from the legacy Shelby County schools were worried last year that the quality of special education would deteriorate when they merged with Memphis. So he said that, in addition to feeling nervous, some parents are excited about what the municipal districts might offer.
Despite governance shifts, parent involvement remains a challenge
PTA leaders and district officials said that parent engagement happens mostly at the school-level, not at the council level, so the realignment of PTA councils might not matter in the long run.
Regenia Dowell says that, while the uncertainty about whether MLK Preparatory High School will have a PTA next year is new, the challenge of running a parent group will continue. “We are struggling to get members and struggling to stay afloat.” Dowell says.
She says that suburban PTA members tell her at conferences that if she just goes to the local bank and asks for money, she will receive donations. But when she’s tried to do that, the local businesses haven’t been supportive. Her PTA took in $200 in membership dues last year, but she says some wealthier areas of Shelby County raised more than $80,000 for their PTOs last year through dues and fundraisers.
Many PTAs have looked at themselves primarily as fundraising organizations to support student programs, but PTAs need to be focused on improving academic results in order to make a real difference, according to Anne Henderson, a senior consultant at the Annenberg Institute for School Reform.Despite son’s graduation, Dowell remains committed
The first year Dowell ran an art contest for the PTA, her husband donated prize money to motivate the students. She was amazed by the quality of work they produced.
“In the old Superman TV show he would get a piece of coal, crush it and it would become a diamond. I thought, that’s what we have,” Dowell said. “Some of the [students seem] a little rough but if you just work with them, you’ll see they’re a diamond. At that point I thought I have got to continue working on this.”
Dowell has volunteered for the PTA ever since. Last year, as president of the Frayser High School PTA, she helped the school’s principal inform parents about a new tardy policy. She even wrote the mayor because she’s upset that sidewalks near Corning Achievement Elementary still haven’t been built, two years after funding was approved.
Dowell’s son Albert is now 31 and a member of the PTA himself. Why has she stuck with the PTA even after her children graduated? “Its motto is ‘Every child, one voice.’” Dowell said. “So we work for all the children, not just certain children.”