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What Role Can Neighborhoods Play in Education? The Power of the Shalom Zone Network

What role can neighborhoods play in education?

This question was top of mind when, in early 2015, Center for Transforming Communities (CTC) and our Shalom Zone partners began focusing on education in three Memphis neighborhoods: South Memphis, Highland Heights, and Hickory Hill.

As an organization, CTC is about strengthening neighborhoods. Through our Communities of Shalom program, we convene grassroots coalitions of neighborhood stakeholders – what we call Shalom Zones – to work together to address the many interconnected issues impacting quality of life in their neighborhoods. By 2015, we had helped form a network of 8 Shalom Zones in neighborhoods throughout the Memphis area, 3 of which were especially active and engaged in supporting programs for neighborhood youth.

At the time, Memphis as a community was also experiencing seismic shifts in urban education. Public school closings, the dissolution of the Memphis City Schools, the rapid expansion of private charters, the iZone Schools and the Achievement Schools District – all of these changes had occurred over a relatively short span of time and each had radically changed the education landscape in Memphis. There was (and still is) a tremendous amount of energy and resources focused on urban education reform – a complex environment of frustration, grief, conflict, innovation, opportunity and possibility.

So we wondered: What role can neighborhoods play in education? Could the growing network of Shalom Zones contribute to the future of education in Memphis? If so, how?

Highland Heights Neighborhood Engagement

We invited representatives of three Shalom Zones – the ones most active in working with neighborhood youth – to help us plan events that would begin to address these questions. Together, we called these events Neighborhood Engagements to Shape the Future of Education. They were premised on an idea we had encountered in a report issued by the Kettering Foundation the previous year, that “[e]ducation doesn’t just happen within the walls of schools. Education is a task for the community as a whole.”

On February 28, 2015, members of the South Memphis, Highland Heights, and Hickory Hill communities gathered together in their neighborhoods for a day of sharing, dreaming, and planning to take action to improve education. They set priorities and formed task groups, focusing on a range of strategies they identified as most critical to enhancing the education of their neighborhoods’ youth.

Later that year, CTC had a special opportunity to invest in their work. Inspired by the growing movement known as grassroots grantmaking, we offered mini-grants to help each of the three Shalom Zones kickstart a new project or program connected to education. The South Memphis Shalom Zone (SMSZ) received funding to start a new ACT Prep and College Readiness program to help young people from their neighborhood prepare for college. The Corners of Highland Heights Shalom Zone (The Corners) received funding to start a parenting support program to complement their FirstWorks after school tutoring and enrichment program. The Us Making It Happen in Southeast Memphis and Hickory Hill Shalom Zone (UsMIH) received funding for a Youth Summer of Service Program that provided youth from the neighborhood with a summer full of community service and learning opportunities.

Each of these programs was successful, not because of the mini-grant funding, but because of the rich network of collaborative relationships CTC and the Shalom Zones have nurtured over the years. That network – made up of residents, church members, nonprofit partners, schools, government officials, and many others from diverse neighborhoods across Memphis – is an essential and sometimes-overlooked piece of infrastructure in our city, one with the power to amplify even the smallest investments to make big impacts. Inspired by the mini-grant funding, our Shalom Zone partners were able to reach into that network to find the expertise, volunteers, and resources they needed to make their projects successful. Supported by that network, they will be able to continue their projects well beyond what the mini-grant funding, alone, could have sustained.

That network is one of CTC’s main strategies for strengthening neighborhoods. Through our Neighborhood Connectors, for example, we are constantly reaching out to others to help identify ways to connect and collaborate – helping to grow that network by bringing new ideas, participants, leaders, and partners to the Shalom Zones. That network is also one of the key links between neighborhoods and the seemingly-intractable issues our city faces – issues like education.

Hickory Hill youth volunteer through the Youth Summer of Service

The mini-grant projects the three Shalom Zones have been working on may be small, but they are only a start. Each of the Shalom Zones has big aspirations for education in their neighborhood, and, this fall, CTC will be working with them to help answer the question: What’s next? We know that before long they will be mobilizing to take action on even larger projects to impact education in their neighborhoods, and throughout Memphis, as we continue to explore the question that ignited this work more than a year and a half ago:

What role can neighborhoods play in education?

This fall, we also want to invite you to be a part of this work. If you believe that neighborhoods have an important role to play in the future of education in Memphis, please consider making a donation to support CTC and the Shalom Zones. To make a donation online, click here.

Please also consider joining us on September 8th at 6:00pm for our quarterly gathering of Shalom Zones. The theme for this gathering is education, and we’ll be joined by panel of leading thinkers and practitioners in education reform in Memphis. Here, you’ll also have the chance to meet some of the Shalom Zone leaders and learn about their work in education over the past year and a half. To register to attend, please click here.

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