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.”

call out

Our readers had a lot to say in 2017. Make your voice heard in 2018.

PHOTO: Chris Hill/Whitney Achievement School
Teacher Carl Schneider walks children home in 2015 as part of the after-school walking program at Whitney Achievement Elementary School in Memphis. This photograph went viral and inspired a First Person reflection from Schneider in 2017.

Last year, some of our most popular pieces came from readers who told their stories in a series that we call First Person.

For instance, Carl Schneider wrote about the 2015 viral photograph that showed him walking his students home from school in a low-income neighborhood of Memphis. His perspective on what got lost in the shuffle continues to draw thousands of readers.

First Person is also a platform to influence policy. Recent high school graduate Anisah Karim described the pressure she felt to apply to 100 colleges in the quest for millions of dollars in scholarships. Because of her piece, the school board in Memphis is reviewing the so-called “million-dollar scholar” culture at some high schools.

Do you have a story to tell or a point to make? In 2018, we want to give an even greater voice to students, parents, teachers, administrators, advocates and others who are trying to improve public education in Tennessee. We’re looking for essays of 500 to 750 words grounded in personal experience.

Whether your piece is finished or you just have an idea to discuss, drop a line to Community Editor Caroline Bauman at

But first, check out these top First Person pieces from Tennesseans in 2017:

My high school told me to apply to 100 colleges — and I almost lost myself in the process

“A counselor never tried to determine what the absolute best school for me would be. I wasted a lot of time, money and resources trying to figure that out. And I almost lost myself in the process.” —Anisah Karim     

Why I’m not anxious about where my kids go to school — but do worry about the segregation that surrounds us

“In fact, it will be a good thing for my boys to learn alongside children who are different from them in many ways — that is one advantage they will have that I did not, attending parochial schools in a lily-white suburb.” —Mary Jo Cramb

I covered Tennessee’s ed beat for Chalkbeat. Here’s what I learned.

“Apathy is often cited as a major problem facing education. That’s not the case in Tennessee.” —Grace Tatter

I went viral for walking my students home from school in Memphis. Here’s what got lost in the shuffle.

“When #blacklivesmatter is a controversial statement; when our black male students have a one in three chance of facing jail time; when kids in Memphis raised in the bottom fifth of the socioeconomic bracket have a 2.6 percent chance of climbing to the top fifth — our walking students home does not fix that, either.” —Carl Schneider

I think traditional public schools are the backbone of democracy. My child attends a charter school. Let’s talk.

“It was a complicated choice to make. The dialogue around school choice in Nashville, though, doesn’t often include much nuance — or many voices of parents like me.” —Aidan Hoyal

I grew up near Charlottesville and got a misleading education about Civil War history. Students deserve better.

“In my classroom discussions, the impetus for the Civil War was resigned to a debate over the balance of power between federal and state governments. Slavery was taught as a footnote to the cause of the war.” —Laura Faith Kebede

Weekend Reads

Need classroom decor inspiration? These educators have got you covered.

This school year, students will spend about 1,000 hours in school —making their classrooms a huge part of their learning experience.

We’re recognizing educators who’ve poured on the pizazz to make students feel welcome. From a 9th-grade “forensics lab” decked out in caution tape to a classroom stage complete with lights to get first graders pumped about public speaking, these crafty teachers have gone above and beyond to create great spaces.

Got a classroom of your own to show off? Know someone that should be on this list? Let us know!

Jaclyn Flores, First Grade Dual Language, Rochester, New York
“Having a classroom that is bright, cheerful, organized and inviting allows my students to feel pride in their classroom as well as feel welcome. My students look forward to standing on the stage to share or sitting on special chairs to dive into their learning. This space is a safe place for my students and we take pride in what it has become.”

Jasmine, Pre-K, Las Vegas, Nevada
“My classroom environment helps my students because providing calming colors and a home-like space makes them feel more comfortable in the classroom and ready to learn as first-time students!”


Oneika Osborne, 10th Grade Reading, Miami Southridge Senior High School, Miami, Florida
“My classroom environment invites all of my students to constantly be in a state of celebration and self-empowerment at all points of the learning process. With inspirational quotes, culturally relevant images, and an explosion of color, my classroom sets the tone for the day every single day as soon as we walk in. It is one of optimism, power, and of course glitter.”

Kristen Poindexter, Kindergarten, Spring Mill Elementary School, Indianapolis, Indiana
“I try very hard to make my classroom a place where memorable experiences happen. I use songs, finger plays, movement, and interactive activities to help cement concepts in their minds. It makes my teacher heart so happy when past students walk by my classroom and start their sentence with, “Remember when we…?”. We recently transformed our classroom into a Mad Science Lab where we investigated more about our 5 Senses.”


Brittany, 9th Grade Biology, Dallas, Texas
“I love my classroom environment because I teach Biology, it’s easy to relate every topic back to Forensics and real-life investigations! Mystery always gets the students going!”


Ms. Heaton, First Grade, Westampton, New Jersey
“As an educator, it is my goal to create a classroom environment that is positive and welcoming for students. I wanted to create a learning environment where students feel comfortable and in return stimulates student learning. A classroom is a second home for students so I wanted to ensure that the space was bright, friendly, and organized for the students to be able to use each and every day.”

D’Essence Grant, 8th Grade ELA, KIPP Houston, Houston, Texas
“Intentionally decorating my classroom was my first act of showing my students I care about them. I pride myself on building relationships with my students and them knowing I care about them inside and outside of the classroom. Taking the time to make the classroom meaningful and creative as well building a safe place for our community helps establish an effective classroom setting.”


Jayme Wiertzema, Elementary Art, Worthington, Minnesota
“I’m looking forward to having a CLASSROOM this year. The past two years I have taught from a cart and this year my amazing school district allowed me to have a classroom in our school that is busting at the seams! I’m so excited to use my classroom environment to inspire creativity in my students, get to know them and learn from their amazing imaginations in art class!”


Melissa Vecchio, 4th Grade, Queens, New York
“Since so much of a student’s time is spent inside their classroom, the environment should be neat, organized, easy to move around in but most of all positive. I love to use a theme to reinforce great behavior. I always give the students a choice in helping to design bulletin boards and desk arrangements. When they are involved they take pride in the classroom, and enjoy being there.”