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.

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Sayonara, SESIS: New York City to scrap its beleaguered special education data system

PHOTO: Patrick Wall/Chalkbeat

New York City is scrapping a special education data system that has frustrated educators since it launched nearly a decade ago.

The troubles of SESIS, as the city’s Special Education Student Information System is called, are well known. Since its launch in 2011, the system — which required over $130 million to build — cost the city tens of millions of dollars in settlements, at times malfunctioned more than 800,000 times a day, and made it difficult to track whether students with disabilities are getting the services they need.

Education department officials said they have been able to “stabilize” the system in recent years. But they also have concluded that an entirely different system is needed. On Friday, they announced that they would phase SESIS out and replace it with something new — at a cost and on a timeline that is not yet clear.

The announcement comes on the eve of a City Council hearing set for Monday where council members say they will press for more transparency about special education.

“It was originally designed as a document management system,” Lauren Siciliano, the education department’s Deputy Chief Operating Officer, said about SESIS. “Think more of a filing cabinet right now as opposed to being able to follow a student through the process.”

Special education teachers often spent hours navigating a maze of drop-down menus — inputting data such as whether they met with a student and for how long — only to experience error messages that erased their answers.

Megan Moskop, a former special education teacher at M.S. 324 in Washington Heights, said she once encountered 41 error messages in two hours. What’s more, she said, the system didn’t reflect the experiences she had with her students.

“At the end of the day, I would be expected to go in, mark that they are present, mark whether they made progress toward a goal,” Moskop said. “It’s very standardized.”

It is not yet clear how quickly the education department will phase SESIS out. Officials said the city would begin a multistage process of identifying a vendor to create a new system by the end of March, then would ask for more detailed plans by the end of 2019. An official purchasing process would happen after that, Siciliano said, meaning that construction of  a new system will not begin for well over a year. Families and educators would be consulted throughout, officials said.

Linda Chen, the department’s chief academic officer, said a new system would lead to tangible improvements for students with disabilities.

“I do think that if we have clear and reliable visibility into the data it would absolutely allow us to better serve our students,” Chen said.

Flaws with SESIS have made it difficult to know how well the city is serving students with disabilities. Because the system was not set up to communicate with other city databases, city officials have had to manually tabulate data across systems. And the annual reports that show whether students are receiving required services may not be accurate because of the system’s flaws, officials have warned.

The system’s glitches also made the user experience so cumbersome that teachers had to spend time on nights and weekends entering data. An arbitrator eventually ordered the city to pay over $38 million in teacher overtime.

Additionally, the system has sparked legal action. Former Public Advocate Letitia James filed a lawsuit claiming that SESIS was to blame for some children not receiving services as well as lost Medicaid payments. Between 2012 and 2015, according to the IBO, the city collected $373 million less in Medicaid reimbursements than officials projected.

Some advocates said that given SESIS’s troubled history, it makes sense to find alternatives.

“There has to be a strong data system in place,” said Maggie Moroff, a disability policy expert at Advocates for Children, a nonprofit advocacy organization. “We are eager to see a better system to be put in place, but are really worried about that transition period.”

Advocates have also pushed the city to make the data SESIS tracks directly available to parents.

“We will absolutely be looking at that,” Siciliano said.

next steps

Charter schools racing to find new buildings as district ends their leases

PHOTO: Koby Levin
Escuela Avancemos will move to a new building.

At least two Detroit charter schools are racing against the clock to find new buildings for more than 500 students next fall after the city district decided not to renew their leases.

It’s the latest move in an ongoing effort by the Detroit Public Schools Community District to get out of the charter business, and it means another bout of uncertainty for schools that enroll hundreds of children in Detroit.

Leaders of GEE-Edmonson Academy and GEE-White Academy face the daunting challenge of finding new buildings before the start of the next school year. Another school, Escuela Avancemos, already found a new building. More schools, including Rutherford Winans Academy, have leases that expire this year, but their representatives did not return requests for comment on whether their lease was renewed.

Most students at the two schools run by Global Educational Excellence (GEE) walk every day, Superintendent Michael Conran said. If a new building can’t be found in those neighborhoods, the school’s would face new transportation challenges, casting doubt on their ability to maintain their enrollment.

“We were clearly not anticipating that the leases would not be renewed,” Conran said. “That news came pretty late, I believe it was after the New Year. That’s quite a notification to the boards in such a short period of time.”

The challenges for these schools don’t end there. The district could also decline to renew their charters for the GEE schools when they expire in June, potentially forcing them to find new backers as well as new buildings.

More than one charter school has already jumped ship. Escuela Avancemos, a small school in southwest Detroit, will begin the coming year in a new building and with a new authorizer, Central Michigan University. Officials had begun searching for a new building even before they were notified last month that their lease would not be renewed.

“For the protection of our school, we’ve had to take matters into our own hands to guarantee our future,” said Sean Townsin, principal at Escuela Avancemos.

Superintendent Nikolai Vitti made clear soon after he took the helm of the district in 2017 that he believed the district’s resources should be channeled toward its own students, not toward charter schools.

He reiterated that position last year when the district severed its ties with a three-school network of charter schools, forcing it to scramble to find new buildings and a new charter. Parents were forced to choose between an extraordinarily long commute to the new site and making an unwanted switch to another school. Enrollment was cut in half.

Supporters of the move pointed out at the time that those schools had been district schools until they were spun off by state-appointed emergency managers. In a city with lots of school options and few quality schools, they argued, some consolidation is necessary.

Most charters in Detroit are overseen by Michigan’s public universities, but 10 schools are supervised by the Detroit district.

A handful of those schools also rent their school buildings from the district, putting them in a particularly vulnerable position should the district decide that it would rather not support charter schools — its chief competitors for students and state funding.

In a statement about those schools, Chrystal Wilson, a spokeswoman for the district, said the the charter schools could eventually be replaced with district schools.

“Now that we have the leadership to rebuild the district, we need to review and maximize our property assets. This means possibly re-using currently leased schools for new DPSCD schools, replacing older buildings with high repair costs, or adding a school in an area where facility usage and class sizes are high where another traditional public school does not exist. We understand and accept if district charters are leaving for other authorizers.”

No matter the district’s plans, Conran said the Global Educational Excellence schools would continue trying to serve students.

But he asked for transparency from the district and time to plan.

“I’m just simply waiting to hear from DPS any decisions they anticipate making in as timely a manner as we need to make sure we can continue to support these students and their families,” he said.