from the top

Education officials: Tennessee’s weakest schools improved during Barbic’s tenure

PHOTO: J. Zubrzycki
Students and their teacher on the first day of school in 2014 at Freedom Preparatory Academy, a charter school authorized in Memphis by the state's Achievement School District

Tennessee’s efforts to improve low-performing schools are in a far stronger place now than they were when Chris Barbic started the state-run Achievement School District in 2011, state education officials said Friday in a press release about his departure.

Gov. Bill Haslam and Education Commissioner Candice McQueen praised Barbic’s passion and leadership, saying that the Texas-bred official had laid important groundwork in the state’s pioneering efforts to improve low-achieving schools.

But both emphasized that the ASD — which has not yet shown the sweeping test score gains that it promised — is just one of multiple strategies underway to ensure that all students in the state attend a high-performing school.

“Five years ago the state had no structured plans for schools in the bottom five percent,” Haslam said in the statement. “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.”

Indeed, of the 83 schools in the bottom 5 percent in 2012, the first time the state compiled a list of “priority schools,” just 29 are in the Achievement School District. More are participating in turnaround initiatives devised by traditional school districts, such as Shelby County Schools’ Innovation Zone program. Other priority schools have closed because of their poor performance.

The press release notes that student test scores in the bottom 5 percent schools have increased four times as fast as scores in other schools. But the scores remain very low, on average.

Test scores set for release later this month will provide an updated view of performance at ASD schools and in other low-performing schools.

Whatever the results, there’s no question that Tennessee has far more ground to cover if it is to ensure that all students are able to graduate with strong skills — something that Barbic himself spelled out in his departure announcement and McQueen echoed in the state’s press release.

“Chris has taken the ASD from an ambitious concept to a living and breathing organization,” McQueen said. “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.”

The complete press release is below.

Superintendent of Achievement School District Announces Departure

Statewide effort enters fourth year, poised to serve 10,500 students

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE

July 17, 2015

NASHVILLE— The superintendent of Tennessee’s Achievement School District, Chris Barbic, announced today his departure from the state-run district which serves schools in the bottom five percent in terms of academic achievement.

Barbic has led the Achievement School District (ASD) since its creation in 2011, when the district was launched as part of Tennessee’s “First to the Top” legislation. The district’s mission is to move the state’s bottom five percent of schools to the top 25 percent. This school year, 14 public school operators authorized by the ASD will lead transformation efforts in 29 schools serving approximately 10,500 students in Memphis and Nashville. Barbic has led the ASD’s expansion, beginning with six schools during the 2012-13 school year. He will remain in his position throughout the fall to ensure a smooth transition.

“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 five percent,” Gov. Bill Haslam said. “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.”

Since the creation of the ASD, the average student proficiency in Tennessee’s Priority Schools has grown four times faster than student proficiency in non-Priority Schools. According to the current Priority Schools list of schools performing in the bottom five percent, 4,500 fewer students attended Priority Schools in Memphis in 2014 compared to 2012. The ASD, under Barbic’s leadership, has been a driving force in this work.

“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,“ Education Commissioner Candice McQueen said. “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.”

Students in the ASD outgained their state peers in reading and math during their second year in existence, and ASD-authorized charter schools that opened in 2012 averaged 11-point proficiency gains over their first two years.

“I hope we have made our ASD students and families proud of what we have built so far and that they are as hopeful as I am about the future of our kids,” Barbic said. “I will be leaving confident that Tennessee’s schools are better off today than when we began, but convinced that the work ahead requires fresh leadership committed to our shared goal: the very best education possible for every child in this great state.”

Barbic’s successor has yet to be named.

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 cbauman@chalkbeat.org.

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.”