chalk talk

Chris Barbic on leading Tennessee’s Achievement School District and its daunting turnaround task

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 is navigating one of his most challenging seasons as superintendent of the state’s Achievement School District (ASD).

Tasked with turning around schools ranked academically in the bottom 5 percent of Tennessee’s public schools, the district is completing its third year of operation in what Barbic calls a “battleground state” in the education change movement. Most of the priority schools under ASD oversight are in Memphis, where community loyalty to neighborhood schools is fierce. Last year, the ASD’s process of taking control of struggling schools – and then transitioning them to charter schools – proved contentious, with protests and three charter operators pulling out of school matches.

While the ASD appears this year to have weathered a bevy of bills in the state legislature aimed at scrapping the ASD or limiting its authority, it’s still smarting from the withdrawal last month of nationally heralded YES Prep, five months before the charter school network was to assume control over one school in south Memphis. The exit was particularly thorny for Barbic because he helped found YES Prep in 1998 and led it to national prominence before leaving Houston to head the ASD.

In an interview with Chalkbeat, Barbic, 44, talks about the difficult work of turning around struggling schools, the lessons he’s learned while shepherding Tennessee’s pioneering turnaround district, and his message to the nation’s education community about change and improvement. Here are the highlights:

There’s a huge educational experiment going on in Tennessee, and it’s called the Achievement School District. But most Tennesseans aren’t even aware of the ASD and its significance in big-picture education conversations across the nation. How would you explain what the ASD is and what it’s trying to do in Tennessee?

The ASD is a statewide school district that’s focused on the priority schools that are defined as the bottom 5 percent in the state. Our job is to improve outcomes in those schools. We’re doing that in three ways: first, authorizing great [charter] organizations to run the priority schools; second, pushing the autonomy and resources down to those educators that are running the organization so they’ve got the authority to make the decisions that matter most around educating the kids; and third, holding them accountable for results. We believe that by partnering with the organizations, giving them the resources and autonomy to be effective, and then holding them accountable for results – that’s the best role we can play as a state-level district to ensure that kids are getting a better quality education than they’ve been receiving.

Whenever a state wrests control from a school or local district, it’s got to be difficult for everyone. In Memphis, for instance, the ASD now oversees 22 schools that once were under the purview of Shelby County Schools. How do you work with the local district to keep this relationship constructive during the turnaround process? 

Well, I think you’re right. It is difficult. I think part of it is starting with acknowledging that from the beginning. When I took this job in 2011, I took it knowing full well that there would be situations where we would butt heads or not see eye to eye with the local district, and that was going to create some tense conversations. I think my biggest surprise has been the degree to which, especially in Shelby County, adults have been able to put kids’ interests first. That goes all the way back to Dr. [Kriner] Cash when he was superintendent. We’ve built an even stronger relationship with [Superintendent] Dorsey [Hopson] and the folks on his staff. There are times the relationship gets portrayed in the media as a combative one. And there are times when we disagree and that’s just the nature of the work. Much more often than not, we work together. When things come up, we talk and we hash it out. It’s easier to do that because I know in my heart that Dorsey is there because he wants to do what’s right for kids. I think if you ask him, he’d say the same thing about me. We are both clear about what our agendas are. And when you have a partner whose intentions are pure, it’s much easier to handle dissension or times when you don’t agree because you know the other person is coming at this from a good place.

This year, there were at least 22 bills in the state legislature aimed either at doing away with the ASD or significantly limiting its authority, which certainly is a reflection that not everyone is a fan of yours. What is your response to the legislators and constituents behind these efforts?

I haven’t talked to all of the politicians who have sponsored these bills. I’m going to give everybody the benefit of the doubt and assume that they’ve got reasons for why they’re doing this and they think it’s the right thing to do.

Do you think they are jumping the gun?

[The ASD] is only three years old, so I think limiting it at this point is a little premature. We’re talking about schools that have in some cases been struggling for decades. To expect folks to come in and fix it in two years is a bit unrealistic. If it were that simple, it would’ve happened already. This is hard work, and I think we need to honor the folks who have raised their hands and said, ‘You know what? I want to go into schools and work with some of the most vulnerable kids in the state.’ We need to give the teachers and leaders in the building the space and time to be successful. For us, that means three years.

I would also point to the progress already happening. Look at the progress in the iZone schools and the ASD schools over the course of the last two years. Look at the energy around the philanthropy and the investments that are happening in priority schools across Memphis. Look at the talent partners that are coming to the city and getting involved in this work. So I think there’s enough to point to and say, ‘Let’s give this time.’ I’m really optimistic. I’m more optimistic now than I was even before we started. Not only are we making progress, but we’re already seeing a lot more kids in a lot more schools achieving at a much higher level than we’ve seen before all of this started. There are 4,500 fewer students attending priority schools today than there were just two years ago because of the collective effort happening in Memphis. And I think that the pressure we’re putting on the system and the pressure we’re putting on ourselves is making everybody better. It’s hard at times, but it’s making everybody better and kids and families are benefiting as a result.

If you could do it over again, would you pick the goal of taking schools in the bottom 5 percent to the top 25 percent within five years?

I think it’s the right goal. And here’s the reason: I think that if we were to go back in time, had we not stuck our flag in the ground at top 25 percent in five years, then we could’ve defined success in a lot of different ways. We could’ve said the ASD is successful if we get our schools out of the bottom 5 percent. We could’ve gotten a school in the bottom 7 percent and declared victory. To me, a school that’s off the list but still in the bottom 7 percent or bottom 10 percent is not a school that’s really preparing kids and giving them the kind of education they deserve. For us, this is about [setting] a goal that is ambitious, noble, and that’s going to get our schools to a point where any one of us would send [our children] there. I’m sure that in five years, if not every single one of our schools hits this mark, we’ll pay a price. But I also know that by us setting that benchmark, we’re pushing ourselves and the district much harder than if we said we’re just going to get out of the bottom 5 percent.

How would you describe your relationship with Memphians?

I think it’s a complicated relationship. And I think it’s a growing relationship. In the work that we’re doing, we’ve really tried to honor Memphis and Memphians, especially when you get away from the headlines in the media and you talk to parents at our schools and you hear stories about how much better they feel about their school as a result of this work. Building relationships takes time. The analogy I always use is that microwave food is never as good as home-cooked food. Relationships work the same way. You can’t come in and microwave relationships and have them be meaningful in just a couple of years. Building strong ones takes time. What I hope we’re demonstrating is that we’re going to keep showing up and we’re going to keep having conversations about this work and how we get better. And yes, there will be times when we make a mistake. We said when we started this that it isn’t going to be perfect. Most importantly, when we do make a mistake, we’re going to say we screwed up and we’re going to learn from it and get better.

To be clear, my expectation isn’t that parents are going to jump up and down and say “Yay, ASD!” at the very beginning of this process. I think a more realistic goal is for parents and communities to demand something better and to recognize that they deserve better than what’s been happening in their schools. What we’re saying is we’re going to work hard at this and we need to be held accountable too. And if we’re not getting the job done, we need to be held to the same standards we’re holding local districts to. To me, that’s a fair request. 

What are some lessons learned?

I think we are learning a lot. But you have to keep in mind that we only have two years worth of data. If you look at last year’s data, our phase-in [in which schools are transitioned into charter schools one grade at a time] schools did well. As much controversy as phase-ins cause, just look at the results. Last year at our phase-in schools, you saw 22-point gains in reading and 16-point gains in math. At least initially, that’s better than what we’ve seen when we do the whole-school conversion. We still expect our whole-school conversions to meet our goals but are learning that their path getting there may look different. Our position is that we want our charters to make the decision regarding how they grow their school. And if they feel committed to doing phase-ins, we’re going to support them in that work. If they are committed to whole-school conversions, we support that too.

Barbic before the Senate Education Committee with state Education Commissioner Candice McQueen
Barbic testifies before the Senate Education Committee with state Education Commissioner Candice McQueen.

I think a second lesson is around the depth of the poverty in Memphis and the obstacle that creates in educating our students. Obviously, when we looked at the info on our kids before bringing a school into the ASD, we knew most of the kids we serve are living in poverty and that poverty plays a factor at school. I’ve been doing this for over 20 years and every single school I’ve worked with has been in a community dealing with poverty. But the poverty in Houston, where I worked before coming to Tennessee, compared to the poverty in Memphis, is different. In Houston, it was more of an immigrant poverty. In Memphis, it’s more generational poverty. 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. We underestimated that. To address it, we’ve worked hard to develop partnerships with organizations that provide wraparound and social service supports to our students and families. We still have work to do, but I believe we are making good progress.

Lastly, it’s important to have a pipeline of teachers and school leaders who are going to be able to do this work in a sustainable way. That’s as much a question as it is a lesson learned. Asking someone to come in and spend their career in a priority school, given the level of intensity required day in and day out to be successful, is a lot to ask of any educator.

Shelby County School leaders are having to offset a $125 million budget deficit next school year and have partly blamed the projected loss of an additional 2,657 students to a growing crop of charter schools and the ASD. Do you think you are responsible for the district’s budget woes? 

The dollars follow the kids. So when a child becomes part of the ASD, we take responsibility for providing for those kids. I think that it comes back to fixed costs vs. variable costs. If the number of kids you are serving shrinks, then you would think that the teachers and all the supports required to serve that smaller number of kids should also shrink. The central office needs to be smaller when you’re serving fewer kids. But I would argue that should probably happen anyway. I believe in bottom-up vs. top-down. So if you buy this idea that people in the schools need to be making the decisions that matter most around hiring, budgeting resources, determining programs and determining the length of the school day, school week and school year, then you shouldn’t have massive fixed costs at the central office. We’ve got a small support team in the ASD. We’re going to be serving 10,000 kids next year. Our district’s central office will probably never go beyond 30-40 people. So, I get that it’s tough, and I get that budgets are shrinking. But I think if you zoom up 30,000 feet, for the city, it’s not going to end up resulting in a net loss of resources or positions. What’s happening is a shift. There are resources and jobs shifting from a [district] monopoly provider of schools to a lot of different organizations that will be operating schools. And we need to concentrate less on what type of school it is and more on the quality of the education each school is delivering to its students.

There are a lot of educators and policymakers across America who are closely watching the ASD and its outcomes. Some states, such as Georgia, Nevada and Texas, are looking at similar approaches to address underperforming schools. And there are several large research projects tracking your every move. At this point, what are they seeing? And what message would you like to send to the national education community?

On the positive side, people are not only recognizing we can no longer accept a low level of performance in our schools, legislators and policymakers are taking bold action in addressing our most struggling schools. We’ve got to get the education right if we as a country want to maintain our stature in the world. And just educating the top half of kids to high levels is no longer good enough. Setting up state-run districts focused on priority schools creates energy, focus and urgency in creating a quality education for students that have for far too long been ignored or neglected. All of this is extremely important and good. But in education, we tend to look for silver bullets and we need to be conscious that setting up ASD-type organizations doesn’t turn into the next silver bullet in the reform community. Every time a state does this, it is important that it works well. During the first decade of charter schools, for every good charter, there were five lousy ones. But if we are setting up achievement school districts, every one of these needs to be good. We can’t be in a situation where for every one state that does this well, five states screw it up and get it wrong. It is why these studies and research projects are so important. Lessons we learn can easily get captured to help other states set these up effectively, get it right, and help even more of our students and families.

The ASD usually turns over its schools to charter organizations, but you also chose to operate a handful of schools yourself in the Frayser community of Memphis. Some of those ASD schools have continued to struggle academically. What happened?

Last year we directly operated six schools in Frayser. Two did really well, two did moderately well, and two struggled. It was our second year of running schools on top of all of the other work we were responsible for in order to build and run a school district. I think for us, it goes back to the idea of accountability for results. All of us – ASD, charters and districts – should only be allowed to run schools if we do a good job. And while I believe we have made progress in all of the Frayser schools from the school culture standpoint, if you look at achievement, this year is going to be a real telling year for the first set of schools we opened that will complete their third year in the ASD. Research says that by the end of the third year, you should see gains in proficiency that show the school is on the right track. We know our students and staff are working hard, and we are cautiously optimistic about our end-of-year results.

What is your plan for these schools? 

We are in the process of determining the long-term plan for these schools. One option is to convert them to a charter school network that will eventually return to Shelby County Schools. Another option is to transition them directly back to Shelby County Schools. All of our schools, regardless of type of school, will eventually go back to the local district. We will take the next 12 months to work with SCS to determine which option makes the most sense. So I think the question we have to answer is how do they go back? Do they go back as direct-run schools or as charter schools?

Last month, YES Prep pulled out of its agreement with the ASD to begin operating one school in South Memphis. That had to be a great disappointment to you, both professionally and personally. Now that you’ve had time to process YES Prep’s exit, what are your thoughts about why this happened, what it tells us about the charter landscape in Memphis, and what this means going forward as ASD continues its turnaround work? 

I was shocked and disappointed in YES Prep’s decision. Like I have said before, not everyone is cut out to do the difficult work of turning around neighborhood schools. I believe Memphis has some of the best conditions in the country for educators to start and operate high-performing charter schools. There is a need; there is a great policy environment; the leadership across the city is focused on making our schools better; and there is a local philanthropic community invested in both Shelby County Schools and ASD priority schools. Most importantly, we have terrific and committed educators who are working in our ASD schools across Memphis.

Can you tell us about your level of commitment to the ASD and to the state of Tennessee now that you’re almost four years in?

I am as optimistic and committed as ever. I believe in the work we are doing. I am excited about the progress being made. I am committed to taking the lessons we have learned to make the ASD even better moving forward.


EDITOR’S NOTE: Each month, Chalkbeat conducts a Q&A interview with a different leader, innovator, influential thinker or hero across Tennessee’s education community. We invite readers to email Chalkbeat suggestions for future subjects to

Top 10

From forest preschools to a secret apology, here are Chalkbeat Colorado’s must-read stories of 2018

PHOTO: Ann Schimke/Chalkbeat
Megan Patterson works with children to make a dam in a creek during a recent "forest school" class.

We spend a lot of time at Chalkbeat chasing the news to keep our readers informed about controversial policy changes, fast-moving debates, and late-breaking decisions.

But we also relish the opportunity to dig deep into issues affecting students and families, shine light on innovative ideas, and hear from dedicated educators making a difference. With that in mind, we’ve gathered 10 of our best stories from 2018.

These stories don’t necessarily chronicle the biggest education issues of 2018, from teacher walkouts to unprecedented state interventions. But they are stories we think are important and insightful, and that we enjoyed reporting and writing. We hope you enjoy reading them.

No walls: Forest preschools let kids run free, but can they change to reach diverse families?

One day this past summer, about a dozen children frolicked by a Jefferson County creek — making pretend tea in small metal buckets, and building dams with sticks and mud.

They were students at Worldmind Nature Immersion School, where children spend all their time outside. So-called forest preschools like Worldmind are beloved by many families but face significant regulatory and logistical barriers in expanding their footprint nationwide. Here in Colorado, a pilot program could lead a new kind of child care license designed for them.

And being licensed could help the schools confront another problem: a lack of diversity among their students. Read more.

Colorado was never ranked 46th for teacher pay. Does this change the debate?

It was an oft-cited statistic: that Colorado, despite its booming economy, ranked 46th in the nation for teacher pay. The eye-popping number found its way onto social media posts and signs at massive teacher rallies last spring. News outlets latched on to it, too.

But it was wrong. Colorado was actually ranked 30th in the nation.

Our story breaks down how the mistake happened (hint: a new data system, an unrevised report) — and how groups with different agendas seized on the snafu to score points. Read more.

This is the letter of apology that Adams 14 leaders never sent

The Adams 14 district in Commerce City is arguably the most troubled and low-performing in Colorado. Just last month, state officials directed Adams 14 to hire an external manager to oversee the district’s operations for at least the next four years.

Back in September, Adams 14 officials considered taking a rare step: saying sorry to the community. But an apology letter was never signed nor sent out.

Chalkbeat obtained a copy of the letter, which makes mention of “various and conflicting priorities, coupled with constant turnover and organizational disarray.” Read more.

Rising test scores and dwindling trust: Denver’s Tom Boasberg leaves a complicated legacy

Colorado’s largest school district experienced a big change this year when longtime leader Tom Boasberg announced he would step down after nearly 10 years in Denver Public Schools.

Because of his school improvement strategies — some of which were controversial and heightened tensions with the community — the district that the new superintendent, Susana Cordova, will inherit in January is vastly different than it was a decade ago.

One tangible difference: Schools that once served as anchors of the community but struggled academically have been closed or replaced. That disappearance was on display on one of Boasberg’s last days, when he held his cell phone close to his mouth and enunciated each word so his GPS would understand his direction: “Montbello High School.” Read more.

Parents in one Aurora high school are visiting classrooms and giving teachers feedback

Like many schools in Colorado, Aurora’s Rangeview High School has a test score gap between white and black students. But the assistant principal there came up with a unique way to try to address it: by inviting black parents to visit classrooms and observe how students are — or are not — engaging with the teacher’s lesson, and then provide suggestions for improvement.

“We give true and honest feedback,” said one parent involved, “if they looked or appeared comfortable, how they interacted with the environment, the temperature of the room.”

Although the assistant principal considers the African American Parent Committee an experiment, she said it’s generating uncomfortable but necessary conversations. Read more.

How education reform became a wedge issue among Colorado Democrats this election year

For years, more moderate Democrats, often working in unison with like-minded Republicans, championed education reform efforts ranging from school choice to holding educators accountable for student performance.

But partly because of backlash against President Donald Trump and his education secretary, those strategies no longer fly with many Democrats — especially left-leaning Democrats who see them as undercutting public education and devaluing the work of teachers.

That sentiment was palpable in Colorado’s Democratic gubernatorial primary, and could shape the next legislative session, which starts in January. “Education is the issue that really stands to divide the left in a very substantial way,” one observer said. Read more.

How a Colorado school district turned things around at 10,000 feet above sea level

School improvement efforts look a little different high in the Rocky Mountains. While many of the strategies used by the 1,000-student Lake County school district are familiar to urban settings, they’ve been retrofitted to meet the needs of a district that’s 100 miles west of Denver.

For example, instead of firing teachers and principals who weren’t accelerating student learning fast enough, the district adopted a new curriculum and gave its teachers lots of training.

“The belief that the people are the problem is wrong,” the superintendent said. “Our teachers are professionals, and we believe in them. We’re proving that there is a framework or a pathway for rural schools to improve that’s about building capacity within your own community.” Read more.

7 things to know about how Colorado schools punish their youngest students

After state lawmakers rejected a bill to limit the use of suspensions in the earliest grades, Chalkbeat wanted to know more about the early childhood discipline landscape in Colorado. Data from the Colorado Department of Education revealed several trends.

Among them: Young black boys are suspended at disproportionate rates. Some rural school districts have the highest early childhood suspension rates in the state.

And despite nationwide debate about the impact of harsh discipline on young children and local efforts to bring the numbers down, suspensions in the early grades are actually going up. Read more.

In Denver’s gentrifying neighborhoods, some middle-class parents are avoiding the school down the block

Many neighborhoods in Denver are gentrifying, with middle-class families moving into what have historically been working-class communities. That type of demographic shift could easily lead to neighborhood schools that are more integrated by family income and race.

But that doesn’t always happen in Denver. Instead, data show that wealthier families – more often than low-income families – are using Denver Public Schools’ universal school choice process to send their kids to schools elsewhere in the city.

That’s a problem because research shows integrated schools boost test scores for students from low-income families without lowering the scores of those from wealthier ones. Denver officials want to see those benefits, but allowing parents to choose may be thwarting them. Read more.

Why this Colorado principal hand delivers birthday cards to more than 2,000 students and staff

Northglenn High School Principal Sharee Blunt is Colorado’s 2018 School Principal of the year — but perhaps even more impressive is the enormous number of birthday cards she hand delivers each year. If you’re one of those people who can barely remember your spouse’s birthday, you’ll be floored by Blunt’s annual feat.

In our interview with Blunt, part of Chalkbeat’s “How I Lead” Q&A series with distinguished school leaders, she talks about what she realized after a mother’s emotional reaction, and why she gave a teacher a pass during a lesson that went awry. Read more.

union power

Charter teachers won big in nation’s first strike. What now?

PHOTO: Yana Kunichoff / Chalkbeat
Teachers from Acero charter schools in Chicago protest stalled negotiations Oct. 24, 2018, as they readied to vote on authorizing a strike.

Some 500 unionized teachers joined in the nation’s first charter strike last week, and succeeded in negotiating wage increases, smaller class sizes and a shorter school day. Their gains could foreshadow next year’s citywide contract negotiations — between the Chicago Teachers Union, with its contract expiring in June, and Chicago Public Schools.

“The issue of class size is going to be huge,” said Chris Geovanis, the union’s director of communications. “It is a critically important issue in every school.”

Unlike their counterparts in charters, though, teachers who work at district-run schools can’t technically go on strike to push through a cap on the number of students per class. That’s because the Illinois Education Labor Relations Act defines what issues non-charter public school teachers can bargain over, and what issues can lead to a strike.

An impasse on issues of compensation or those related to working conditions, such as length of the school day or teacher evaluations, could precipitate a strike. But disagreements over class sizes or school closures, among other issues, cannot be the basis for a strike.

The number of students per class has long been a point of contention among both district and charter school teachers.

Educators at Acero had hopes of pushing the network to limit class sizes to 24-28 students, depending on the grade. However, as Acero teachers capped their fourth day on the picket line, they reached an agreement with the charter operator on a cap of 30 students — down from the current cap of 32 students.

Andy Crooks, a special education apprentice, also known as a teacher’s aide, at Acero’s Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz school and a member of the teachers bargaining team, said that even having two fewer students in a classroom would make a huge difference.

“You really do get a lot more time with your students,” Crooks said. “And if you are thinking about kindergarten in particular, two less 5-year-olds really can help set the tone of the classroom.”

In district-run schools, classes are capped at 28 students in kindergarten through third grade, and at 31 students in fourth through sixth grade. But a survey by the advocacy group Parents 4 Teachers, which supports educators taking on inequality, found that during the 2017-2018 school year, 21 percent of K-8 classrooms had more students than district guidelines allowed. In 18 elementary school classrooms, there were 40 or more students.

The issue came up at last week’s Board of Education meeting, at which Ivette Hernandez, a parent of a first-grader at Virgil Grissom Elementary School in the city’s Hegewisch neighborhood, said her son’s classes have had more than 30 students in them. When the children are so young and active — and when they come into classrooms at so many different skill levels — “the teachers can’t handle 30 kids in one class,” she told the board.

Alderman Sue Garza, a former counselor, accompanied Hernandez. She also spoke before the board about classroom overcrowding — worrying aloud that, in some grades at one school in particular, the number of students exceeded the building’s fire codes. (Board chair Frank Clark said a district team would visit the school to ensure compliance fire safety policies.)

While the Chicago Teachers Union aren’t technically allowed to strike over class sizes, the union does have a history of pushing the envelope when it comes to bargaining.

Back in 2012, when the Chicago Teachers Union last went on strike, they ended up being able to secure the first limit on class sizes in 20 years because the district permitted the union to bargain over class size.

They also led a bargaining campaign that included discussion over racial disparities in Chicago education and school closures, arguing that these trends impacted the working conditions of teachers.

“Even if you can’t force an employer to bargain over an issue, you can push them to bargain over the impact of an issue,” Bob Bruno, a labor professor at the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana, explained.

The Chicago Teachers Union also emerged from its 2012 negotiations with guarantees of additional “wraparound services,” such as access to onsite social workers and school counselors.