First impressions

Barbic’s planned exit prompts accolades for his school turnaround work in Tennessee

PHOTO: J. Zubrzycki
Chris Barbic has led the Tennessee Achievement School District since 2011.

Reaction to the looming departure of Superintendent Chris Barbic from Tennessee’s 4-year-old Achievement School District was swift and mostly supportive, along with some anxiety for what the leadership change will mean for the state’s pioneering school turnaround initiative.

Barbic announced his exit plan on Friday after sharing the news privately with key staff members on Thursday.

Barbic said he will remain in his position throughout the fall to ensure a smooth transition. His successor will be named by Tennessee Education Commissioner Candice McQueen.

The state-run school turnaround district serves schools in the bottom 5 percent in terms of academic achievement, most of which are in Memphis. Barbic began the effort with six schools in 2012. In the upcoming school year, the ASD will oversee 29 schools serving approximately 10,500 students in Memphis and Nashville, with the help of 14 charter operators.

Here are reactions to his impending exit:

Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam: “The ASD has been part of systemic change at the state level in how we work to improve our lowest achieving schools. Five years ago the state had no structured plans for schools in the bottom 5 percent. Today, with the ASD as a key tool in our toolkit, there is an intervention for nearly every one of these schools and clear-cut strategies for serving students that are furthest behind. I am grateful for Chris’ passion and courage in taking on this role and proud of the successes we have seen over the three years of the ASD’s operation.”

Candice McQueen, Tennessee Education Commissioner: “Chris has taken the ASD from an ambitious concept to a living and breathing organization that provides thousands of Tennessee families more academic options for their students and compels local districts to act with greater urgency. The work that you take on as a turnaround district around is deeply challenging, and Chris has led this effort with vigor and drive. Thanks to Chris’ leadership and direction, the district has catalyzed statewide change and is well-positioned to move us toward the next phase of work.”

Nina Rees, CEO and president, National Alliance for Public Charter Schools: “If there’s one place we have gotten (school turnaround work) right and we should stick with the momentum, it’s Tennessee’s Achievement School District. Under Chris’ leadership, they’ve moved behind the experimental stage. The child has been born and it’s moving into adulthood. Chris is now saying that he needs a leader in place who will be a marathon runner rather than a sprinter. Because we’re operating in a political system, though, the district’s future will depend on the governor and the (state education commissioner). There needs to be a commitment at the state level to continue these reforms.”

Dorsey Hopson, superintendent, Shelby County Schools: “He has a heart for kids and a demonstrated commitment to improved struggling schools. What I’m most proud of as a result of the relationship: We pushed each other. What you see are very positive results to come out of our iZone. I don’t know if we hadn’t had the intense focus and sense of urgency from the state, we wouldn’t have been able to get those results. He’ll definitely be missed.”

Rebecca Lieberman, Tennessee Charter School Center: “Chris and his team have laid a strong foundation for new leadership. The timing of his departure at the end of the calendar year allows for a smooth transition to continue the growth in the trajectory of the organization. Chris is an inspirational force of the ASD’s work, but much of the work has been done by many unsung heroes who are highly capable of continuing this work. They are an exceptionally talented group.”

Chris Reynolds, CEO of LEAD, a charter network operator with the ASD: “Those are huge shoes to fill, but I’m sure Commissioner McQueen will find a great successor.
 I think that the experience we’ve had at LEAD while he’s been the superintendent has just proven to us even more deeply that turnaround work is crucial. It’s more important and necessary than ever. He’s an extraordinary leader and … we’re all better off for him having launched this work.”

Stephanie Love, member, Shelby County Schools Board of Education: “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 and I was always able to let him know exactly how I felt and exactly how the community felt.”

Paul Pastorek, former state superintendent of schools in Louisiana: “Chris has successfully launched and built the ASD over last four years and has changed the narrative on priority schools in Tennessee. This is the natural point for a leadership transition.”

Will Pinkston, member, Metro Nashville Schools Board of Education: “I think that Chris Barbic’s heart was always in the right place. He did what he thought was in the best interest of kids. Anyone who interacted with him, whether they agreed or disagreed with him, knew he had students as his top priority. He just had a different worldview than most Tennesseans about how to engineer large-scale improvement. It’s no coincidence that he’s leaving right as the federal money runs out.”

Justin Testerman, former chief operating officer, Tennessee Charter School Center: “I’m sorry to see him go. Chris has done a lot of great work with the ASD, but it’s understandable he would leave now. It’s tremendously difficult, high-pressure work. I hope he finds another job in education reform because he’s extremely talented.”

Kevin Woods, member, Shelby County Board of Education: “I was surprised when someone as committed to public education as Chris decides to leave that work but not surprised when you look at the toll it takes on an individual to do this kind of work. The ASD work … has not been something that has been a bright spot for the employees (or) communities that have been impacted by state-run schools and the decision to take over schools. However, if you look for a silver lining, it’s that you know you had an individual who was truly committed to kids. The great debate will be: Did it force Shelby County Schools to step up and be intentionally focused on improving the outcomes of hardest-to-serve populations? If you look at data of our IZone schools, you could argue that our success could be credited to the fact that our competition was here in Memphis.”

David Saunders, Memphis teacher at Aspire Hanley Elementary School: “I respect the goals Chris Barbic set of raising bottom 5 percent to 20 percent (and) setting the bar that high — very powerful. I think the ASD, because of what Barbic did, is going to be here for awhile. He was the captain giving us orders, but we’re the ones on the ground. Don’t think, on our end, that there will be any problems during this leadership change.”

Thomas Weber, recording secretary of Tennesseans Reclaiming Educational Excellence and Nashville blogger: “I’m ecstatic. It seems like he’s been evolving his position. He had indicated he was coming after two more Nashville schools — a middle school and an elementary school. We’ve been gearing up to fight back once Nashville has a new school director.”

Jon Alfuth, education blogger and Memphis teacher at The Soulsville Charter School: “Personally, I tend to view this as a part of an all-too-frequent pattern in the education reform movement. Someone comes in, shakes things up, and then leaves after a few years, with someone else stepping in to more quietly continue the work. I personally identify as an education reformer, but I have to wonder if there isn’t some way of ending this cycle. How do we enact reforms so that those who champion them don’t work themselves out of a job?”

Mendell Grinter, director, Tennessee Black Alliance for Educational Options: “Since its creation, the ASD has made significant gains in improving the outcomes for students in the state’s bottom 5 percent of schools. Chris Barbic has played an instrumental role in building a successful model for turning around low-performing schools that many other states across the nation seek to replicate. We wish him all the best in his next venture.”

Bob Nardo, principal/founder at Libertas, the first ASD Montessori school, and former COO of the ASD: “A lot of superintendents are kind of office people, and Chris is anything but. He bares himself. He goes out and knocks on doors.”

What's Your Education Story?

As the 2018 school year begins, join us for storytelling from Indianapolis educators

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy/Chalkbeat
Sarah TeKolste, right, and Lori Jenkins at a Teacher Story Slam, in April.

In partnership with Teachers Lounge Indy, Chalkbeat is hosting another teacher story slam this fall featuring educators from across the city.

Over the past couple of years, Chalkbeat has brought readers personal stories from teachers and students through the events. Some of our favorites touched on how a teacher won the trust of her most skeptical student, why another teacher decided to come out to his students, and one educator’s call to ramp up the number of students pursuing a college education.

The event, 5:30 p.m. Thursday, Sept. 13, is free and open to the public — please RSVP here.

Event details:

5:30 p.m. to 7:30 p.m.
Thursday, Sept. 13, 2018
Tube Factory artspace
1125 Cruft St., Indianapolis, IN 46203
Get tickets here and find more on Facebook

More in What's Your Education Story?

School safety

Hiring more security officers in Memphis after school shootings could have unintended consequences

PHOTO: Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post/Getty Images

Tennessee’s largest district, Shelby County Schools, is slated to add more school resource officers under the proposed budget for next school year.

Superintendent Dorsey Hopson earmarked $2 million to hire 30 school resource officers in addition to the 98 already in some of its 150-plus schools. The school board is scheduled to vote on the budget Tuesday.

But an increase in law enforcement officers could have unintended consequences.

A new state law that bans local governments from refusing to cooperate with federal immigration officials could put school resource officers in an awkward position.

Tennessee Education Commissioner Candice McQueen recently reminded school personnel they are not obligated to release student information regarding immigration status. School resource officers employed by police or sheriff’s departments, however, do not answer to school districts. Shelby County Schools is still reviewing the law, but school board members have previously gone on the record emphasizing their commitment to protecting undocumented students.

“Right now we are just trying to get a better understanding of the law and the impact that it may have,” said Natalia Powers, a district spokeswoman.

Also, incidents of excessive force and racial bias toward black students have cropped up in recent years. Two white Memphis officers were fired in 2013 after hitting a black student and wrestling her to the ground because she was “yelling and cussing” on school grounds. And mothers of four elementary school students recently filed a lawsuit against a Murfreesboro officer who arrested them at school in 2016 for failing to break up a fight that occurred off-campus.

Just how common those incidents are in Memphis is unclear. In response to Chalkbeat’s query for the number and type of complaints in the last two school years, Shelby County Schools said it “does not have any documents responsive to this request.”

Currently, 38 school resource officers are sheriff’s deputies, and the rest are security officers hired by Shelby County Schools. The officers respond and work to prevent criminal activity in all high schools and middle schools, Hopson said. The 30 additional officers would augment staffing at some schools and for the first time, branch out to some elementary schools. Hopson said those decisions will be based on crime rates in surrounding neighborhoods and school incidents.

Hopson’s initial recommendation for more school resource officers was in response to the school shooting in Parkland, Florida, that killed 17 people and sparked a wave of student activism on school safety, including in Memphis.

Gov. Bill Haslam’s recent $30 million budget boost would allow school districts across Tennessee to hire more law enforcement officers or improve building security. Measures to arm some teachers with guns or outlaw certain types of guns have fallen flat.


For more on the role and history of school resource officers in Tennessee, read our five things to know.


Sheriff’s deputies and district security officers meet weekly, said Capt. Dallas Lavergne of the Shelby County Sheriff’s Office. When the Memphis Police Department pulled their officers out of school buildings following the merger of city and county school systems, the county Sheriff’s Office replaced them with deputies.

All deputy recruits go through school resource officer training, and those who are assigned to schools get additional annual training. In a 2013 review of police academies across the nation, Tennessee was cited as the only state that had specific training for officers deployed to schools.