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.

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.