exit strategy

Chris Barbic, founding superintendent of state-run Achievement School District, to exit

PHOTO: Daarel Burnette
Achievement School District Superintendent Chris Barbic visits Georgian Hills Elementary, a Memphis school that the state-run district has operated since 2013.

Chris Barbic, the hard-charging superintendent of Tennessee’s school turnaround district, is resigning at the end of the year.

Now that the Achievement School District is no longer new, it needs a different leader, Barbic told senior officials on Thursday, according to multiple people who were informed about his departure plans. They said he also cited health reasons, including the 2014 heart attack that kept him out of work for weeks, for deciding to move on.

Barbic shared his news during a series of meetings and phone calls with ASD staff members on Thursday afternoon and evening, according to multiple people who said they were told not to discuss the change publicly before the district made an official announcement.

Barbic announced the news in an email to supporters early Friday morning.

Barbic’s impending departure comes at a time of transition for the district, which was formed with the ambitious goal of vaulting the state’s weakest schools into the top tier in just a few years. The state is just two weeks away from releasing test scores that he has said would be the first meaningful measure of whether the district is achieving that goal.

State education officials appointed Barbic to lead the ASD on the strength of his record as a charter operator in Texas when they formed the special district in 2012. Under his leadership, the state recruited charter operators to assume management of 22 schools, almost all in Memphis, that had been among the lowest-performing 5 percent in the state.

Unusually, the ASD asks charter operators to improve existing schools, rather than start new ones. The approach has drawn national attention because efforts to make low-performing schools better have stymied many districts.

In his email early Friday, Barbic offered a dim prognosis on that pioneering approach. “As a charter school founder, I did my fair share of chest pounding over great results,” he wrote. “I’ve learned that getting these same results in a zoned neighborhood school environment is much harder.”

Indeed, as the ASD has matured, it has experienced significant growing pains, including ones related to its student population — and its already formidable task is on the verge of growing more challenging.

Public protest contributed to several charter operators — including YES Prep, the network that Barbic founded in Houston — pulling out of agreements to take over schools under the ASD last year. (Last week, Barbic announced that the district is overhauling the way it involves communities in deciding how their schools should change.)

Meanwhile, test scores in year two suggested that dramatic gains were not underway, although Barbic said it was too soon to tell whether the school overhauls were working and that the extent of poverty in Memphis impeded change. “I think that the depth of the generational poverty and what our kids bring into school every day makes it even harder than we initially expected,” he told Chalkbeat last spring. “We underestimated that.”

The district faced a barrage of legislation designed to curb its growth last year from lawmakers unhappy about its tactics and sluggish academic results. “There’s 22 bills that have been filed right now to either try to kill this thing or pull it apart,” Barbic told lawmakers in February, “and this thing hasn’t even gotten out of the Petri dish.”

Most of those bills died, but two that passed benefited the district by expanding the number of students eligible to attend its schools and by allowing it to charge charter operators to run its schools.

A third bill that passed prohibits the ASD from intervening in low-performing schools where test scores are on the rise. That means the district could face greater challenges in showing test score gains at its schools in the future.

The pressure intensifies amid a looming budget crunch and shifting priorities among state education officials.

Tennessee used more than 10 percent of its $500 million windfall in federal education funds to launch the ASD. Those funds, which arrived through the Race to the Top competition to spur education policy changes, have now disappeared.

So has the commissioner who spearheaded the ASD’s creation and hired Barbic, Kevin Huffman, who resigned late last year. His replacement, Candice McQueen, has said she supports the initiative but wants it to become financially sustainable.

Dramatic test score gains and improved community relations would go farthest in justifying shifting the ASD’s management costs to taxpayers, which could be necessary in the future if its significant philanthropic support wanes. But both of those things have proved difficult to elicit so far.

By exiting the district, Barbic is clearing the way for someone else to take a stab at those persistent challenges. He told ASD officials that he hoped Malika Anderson, the district’s chief portfolio officer, would take over after he leaves, according to people who were part of the information rollout.

McQueen will appoint Barbic’s replacement. She declined to comment on Thursday.

Barbic — whose tenure will slightly exceed the average length for urban superintendents — is not the first ASD official to exit in recent months. Ash Solar, who ran the district’s schools in Memphis, and founding chief of staff Elliot Smalley have also recently moved on.

News of Barbic’s impending departure stirred anxiety about the future of the district on Thursday.

Stephanie Love, a Shelby County school board member and community activist who has publicly criticized the ASD, said she worried that his departure would erode already tenuous community relations.

“Even though I don’t agree with a lot of things the ASD has done, I will say Barbic made himself available for me to talk to him,” said Love, whose son attends an ASD school. “I was always able to let him know exactly how I felt and exactly how the community felt.”

This story has been updated to clarify aspects of the Achievement School District’s finances and to include additional details about recent legislation related to the ASD.

crime and punishment

New York City plans to expand programs to keep students away from the criminal justice system

PHOTO: Monica Disare
Advocates protest school suspension policy.

Two programs meant to limit student involvement with the criminal justice system will be expanded, city officials announced Monday.

This spring, 71 total schools will be allowed to issue warning cards instead of a criminal summons to students 16 and older for disorderly conduct or possessing small amounts of marijuana — expanding on a 37-school pilot program in the Bronx that currently operates under that policy.

Officials are also expanding the School Justice Project, a program that offers free legal help for students who have become tangled in the criminal justice system, along with “know your rights” trainings. Eleven total school campuses will join that program, up from just one, according to the city.

The programs are in keeping with Mayor Bill de Blasio’s push for less punitive approaches to school discipline, including “restorative” justice, and a plan to significantly reduce suspensions for the city’s youngest students.

But some advocates said the new measures are too incremental and unlikely to make a significant dent in the number of students — disproportionately black or Hispanic — who are slapped with criminal offenses at school.

“What the city is proposing to do is really minimal,” said Dawn Yuster, a student justice expert at Advocates for Children. She pointed out that school safety agents — who are posted in schools but employed by the NYPD — still have discretion to issue criminal summonses for what amount to schoolyard fights or minor drug violations, even in schools with the warning card program.

Even doubling the number of schools covered by the policy would only cover a fraction of the city’s high school students, Yuster added. “If they wanted to make a big change, there’s no reason why they couldn’t expand the program to all schools.”

But Dana Kaplan, executive director of youth and strategic initiatives for the Mayor’s Office of Criminal Justice, defended the city’s approach.

She said expanding the warning card and School Justice Project programs is part of the city’s effort at “improving school climate while reducing unnecessary exclusionary measures.”

The warning card approach has had an effect: In the program’s first year, there was a 14 percent decline in summonses for small marijuana possession and disorderly conduct in the pilot schools, Kaplan said.

The city is implementing the program in schools that issue a larger share of summonses, she added, and expanding the program requires training school safety agents and other staff in the building. “We’ll be evaluating the warning card program and looking to how we can continue to increase its impact and scale.”

Other advocates cheered the expansion of those programs. “We are really happy with anything that reduces criminal court contacts for minor misbehavior,” said Johanna Miller, advocacy director for the New York Civil Liberties Union. Though “we would like to see the city dispense with using summonses in schools altogether.”

Also on Monday, the NYPD released new quarterly school safety data for the end of 2016 that show school-based arrests and summonses generally decreased last year. The City Council did not start requiring the NYPD to release these statistics before last year, making historical comparisons difficult. (Quarter three shows large declines because it covers much of the summer break.)

Still, the first six months of data collected last year show 91 percent of school-based arrests, and nearly 93 percent of summonses, were issued to black or Hispanic students (a population that represents nearly 70 percent of the school population). Black and Hispanic students are also much more likely to be handcuffed.

“The decrease in arrests and summonses is an indication the administration is trying to go in the right direction,” wrote Kesi Foster, a coordinator at Urban Youth Collaborative, an organization that promotes student voices in conversations about school discipline. But, he said, the numbers show hundreds of students each quarter are still coming into contact with the criminal justice system for minor violations.

“City Hall can and must do more to keep young people in the classrooms and out of courtrooms.”

red carpet

#PublicSchoolProud has its Oscar moment as ‘La La Land’ songwriter shouts out his schools

Songwriter Justin Paul at the 2017 Academy Awards, where he credited his public school education in his acceptance speech for best song.

The recent movement to praise public schools made it all the way to the Academy Awards stage Sunday night.

Justin Paul, one of the songwriters for the movie “La La Land,” credited his public school education during his acceptance speech.

“I was educated in public schools, where arts and culture were valued and recognized and resourced,” Paul said after winning the Oscar for best song. “And I’m so grateful for all my teachers, who taught so much and gave so much to us.”

Paul attended public schools in Westport, Connecticut, where he graduated from Staples High School. The school was also recognized in a recent documentary about its history as a rock venue in the late 1960s. Students recruited The Doors, the Yardbirds, and several other bands to play in the school’s auditorium.

The Oscars stage shoutout comes as people across the country have begun praising their own public schools on social media. The #PublicSchoolProud movement is a response to new U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, who has advocated for policies that let students leave public schools for private and charter schools.