School district superintendents Dorsey Hopson and Chris Barbic recently announced a bold goal: to make Memphis “Teacher Town, USA.” They hope that Memphis will be to teaching what New York City is to banking and what Silicon Valley is to technology.

The need to transform education in Memphis is clear and urgent. Across Tennessee, 30,000 students attend Priority Schools—those ranked in the bottom 5 percent in the state in terms of academic achievement—and 68 out of 80 of those schools are in the Shelby County school district, which includes Memphis. Among Priority School students, fewer than one in six is proficient in reading and math, and only 4 percent graduate ready for college.

To meet that challenge, a number of powerful conditions are at play in Memphis, including federal Race to the Top funding; creation of the statewide Achievement School District (led by Superintendent Barbic) and an Innovation Zone in the Shelby County District which includes the city of Memphis (led by Superintendent Hopson) that each provide additional resources and greater autonomies for highest-need schools; and ongoing investment in local educator effectiveness supported in part by a $90 million grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

The Shelby County and the Achievement School District have a single goal for Memphis: to move the bottom 5 percent schools into the top 25 percent in five years. Public education has yet to achieve a turnaround effort of this magnitude. District leaders agree that it will require many more top-rate teachers—likely more than 1,000 in the next five years—to get the work done.

For Memphis-based funders, this turnaround effort has created a once-in-a-generation opportunity to collaborate with the district, with one another, and with the community to transform the local public education system. Together, the Hyde Family, Poplar, and Pyramid Peak foundations plan to make a multiyear, multimillion dollar investment and deliver on the promise of making Memphis “Teacher Town, USA.”

Working hand-in-hand with district leadership

District leadership teams and local funders have agreed on a three-pronged talent strategy focused on: 1) retaining great teachers, 2) developing local teacher talent, and 3) recruiting national talent. As Sara Solar, portfolio director of the Teacher Town funding initiative explains, “We know that transforming Memphis ... will require that we work at every stage of the teacher life cycle—from novices to our strongest teacher leaders.”

Initiatives funders are exploring include: creating pathways for outstanding teachers to build leadership skills, and share their knowledge and expertise with less-experienced colleagues while remaining in the classroom; encouraging educators to develop deep personal and professional ties to Memphis so that they are motivated to keep teaching in the city; and ensuring that novice teachers have the support they need to succeed in their first year of teaching in turnaround schools and beyond.

The funders are targeting essential work that typically lies outside the operating budgets for most school systems. They are open to scaling promising practices already in place (such as the Memphis Teacher Residency), bringing strong national models to the city (such as the Relay Graduate School of Education), and providing early-stage funding to innovative ideas that may take years to fully develop. “Philanthropists can take risks—calculated risks,” says Teresa Sloyan, executive director of the Hyde Family Foundation. “We can operate inside but also operate outside the traditional system to really push.”

Investing together over multiple years to implement shared strategies

What’s happening in Memphis illustrates a high-stakes donor collaboration, in which a group of funders pools time and resources to help solve social sector problems too big to tackle alone. Such collaborations place results ahead of organizational or individual recognition, and involve a shared, multiyear vision.

Jim Boyd, executive director of the Pyramid Peak Foundation, explains: “Strategy came first. We didn’t just start off with ‘Let’s raise a lot of money and then see what we can do.’ We started with ‘What do we need to do, what level do we need to fund, what do we need to bring individually?’ I have really seen the benefits of trying to find a way … to align goals and work.”

The funders are first to admit that collaboration is not without challenges. The group meets frequently, decides when and whether to make investments together or individually, and continuously looks to improve and learn from one another. They are also working together to develop partnerships with national funders, in pursuit of resources and ideas that will accelerate progress in Memphis.

Engaging the community to shape and sustain the work

Bold school improvement efforts can trigger decades of tension—political, economic, and racial. In Memphis, the funders aspire to create an educator workforce that reflects the diversity of Memphis students and families, and that welcomes existing local teachers who are ready and willing to tackle turnaround work. They’ve sought to engage the community as a partner from the outset—an activity that may give local philanthropists a real edge over national ones.

In May 2013, the funders—in partnership with Barbic and his leadership team from the Achievement School district—convened 65 district school leaders, charter school operators, local universities, nonprofits that recruit and develop teachers, and civic engagement associations to think through how to make Memphis the best place in America for great teachers. The event and countless conversations since then have shaped the set of initial funder investments.

“Our strategy is dynamic in nature,” says Solar. “We expect community and partner input to shape and reshape our approach over time as we learn what works and what opportunities we have to keep getting better.”

Philanthropic funding alone rarely brings about the kind of fundamental changes in teaching and learning required to significantly improve student outcomes across a district. But we believe that there’s mounting evidence—in Memphis, as well as in Jacksonville and Charlotte, where we have also advised philanthropic-district partnerships—that local funders can work together in distinctive ways to transform local public education.

As Priority Schools across Memphis welcomed students last month, it’s clear that this is still early days in a journey that promises to be long and challenging. “We know we have this moment in time, and something concrete and specific to work on together,” reflects Memphis funder Jim Boyd. “And so we partner even when it’s hard. Perhaps because what makes it hard is also what makes it powerful.”


The just-released paper “Local Philanthropists Work Together to Transform Public Education” looks at effective education philanthropy in Memphis, as well as work in Jacksonville, Florida, and Charlotte, North Carolina.