Why Memphis is the Place to Be for EP Fellows and Alums: Q&A with EP Fellows

MEMPHIS is a great place to live and work, not to mention it’s a music lover’s dream. The city is known as the “Home of the Blues” and the “Birthplace of Rock and Roll.” Walk the 1.8 miles of Beale Street in downtown Memphis and you will understand the soul of soul music. Elvis Presley got his start here (you can visit his home of Graceland), as did Aretha Franklin, Johnny Cash, Al Green, BB King, and so many more.

Memphis is serious about attracting and retaining passionate, committed professionals to address the challenges that prevent many students from receiving an equitable education. However, the Memphis education environment is complex with persistent segregation and a fractured history that impacts the work today. In 2013, Memphis City Schools merged with the Shelby County School District and recently experienced a subsequent demerger. The year prior, the Achievement School District (ASD) was established to provide turnaround intervention to the lowest 5 percent of schools. Currently, the ASD is experiencing a major leadership overhaul as the State continues to significantly restructure and downsize its staff. Additionally, student growth on state testing, which has been celebrated year over year in the Shelby County School District, just reversed course this year with the new state test, which has seen its share of challenges.

Charter schools have become an increasingly important part of the education transformation movement in Memphis, and their impact and influence are only expected to grow in the years ahead. Results to date show that charters schools - which often serve a higher percentage of historically underserved students - are by and large succeeding in narrowing the achievement gap for minority students, economically disadvantaged students, and students with disabilities.

While the environment presents significant challenges, Memphis remains ripe for talent who want to solve problems, innovate and create a better future where all students thrive.

Memphis is the fastest growing American city for millennials. We talked to two EP alumni who live and work in Memphis about why that’s the case and why the city may surprise you. Gwendolyn Williams and Megan Weinstein are not only EP Alumni, but ambassadors of Memphis. Below they share reasons why Memphis is the place to be  for Fellows and Alumni!

Q: Why is Memphis a city where Fellows can make an impact?

Megan: Memphis is a smaller city than many other EP sites like Chicago, New York, or Los Angeles. With approximately 653,000 people, Memphis has a decently large population, but it treats itself and its citizens like a small town. The ability to make change is something that feels much more tangible here compared to larger cities and there is a critical mass of people working tirelessly to improve the education system. You feel like you're a part of something big, while enjoying the benefits of being part of a city that feels small. The people you need to speak with, from superintendents to politicians, are much more accessible than in a large urban district.

Gwendolyn: EP Fellows can make an impact in Memphis because anyone who is passionate about changing outcomes for our students and families is welcome here. There is so much work to be done and so many angles to approach the challenges. I am overwhelmed by the number of organizations, community partners, and families who are invested in making a better future for the students of Memphis.

Q: Gwendolyn mentioned that Memphis has a welcoming culture. Would you agree?

Megan: Yes. Not only will Fellows and Alums who choose to live and work here not have any trouble with access professionally, they will thrive personally. Memphis is an incredibly open and welcoming place with true southern hospitality. It's easy to meet people and make friends. Every time you go out and meet someone new, they're like, "Oh! You need friends? Come with me. I want you to meet everybody I know."

There are many organizations here that actively work to ensure newcomers feel welcomed and want to stay. Choose 901 put on tons of fun events. There's the New Memphis Institute, which works to attract and retain talent in Memphis. They have great event and programs, like First Friend of New Memphis, which is a program that pairs you with somebody else in town to become your first friend and show you around.

Q: Does Memphis recognize and reward talent?

Megan: Definitely. When you consider what Education Pioneers is all about: connecting diverse professionals to jobs outside the classroom to make an impact on education, Memphis is an ideal city to make that happen. Why? Because it is a city that rewards hard work and talent. I am 28 years old. I’m also a director. That doesn’t happen in every city. Everyone involved in the education space here is passionate and truly recognizes, supports, and goes the extra mile to retain people who are good at their work. This is the heart of what makes Memphis an excellent destination for young professionals who want to make a difference outside the classroom in the lives of young people.

Q: Is there an area where you think Memphis particularly needs more talent?

Gwendolyn: Memphis has a lot of passionate people working to create more quality opportunities for families and who realize that the focus should be on students and their families first. However, Memphis needs more people who can work with data to communicate actionable steps that lead to improved outcomes for families. That could help move the needle in Memphis.

Q. What did you like most about living and working in Memphis?

Megan: Something worth talking about is that the cost of living in Memphis is incredibly low compared to many cities nationally, which means that your EP stipend will go a long way. To put this in perspective, one could pay as low as $400 for a one-bedroom apartment without a problem. With that lower cost of living, you still get all the benefits of a city like great food, music, culture, and attractions. It’s a lively and fun place to live.

Gwendolyn: Memphis offers so many activities and fun things to keep you busy! I have a 6-year-old son who attends a Shelby County School. When I’m not working, my son and I are usually exploring and participating in fun activities across the city, sometimes with lifelong friends I met through Education Pioneers. Shelby Farms, the Children’s Museum of Memphis, the Memphis Riverfront, the Memphis Zoo, Mud Island River Park, Loflin Yard, Overton Park, and Levitt Shell are just a few of the places we like to go.  Muddy’s Coffee and Bake Shop on Cooper is my go-to coffee and dessert spot, especially when I want to get work done outside my office.

Q: What advice would you give to Fellows placed in Memphis?

Gwendolyn: Don’t let your Google search of Memphis keep you from coming here. If you have a heart for kids and want to make an impact in a community through education, you will be welcomed in Memphis. My passion and commitment to education became stronger during and after my fellowship. The work is hard and we still have a lot to do. Stay solution-focused, do your part, and we will see a difference! I’m always open to talk about my Education Pioneers experience and my current role at the district. Feel free to connect with me on LinkedIn.

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