back in town

Back in Memphis, founding superintendent of Tennessee’s turnaround district says the effort needs more time

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Chris Barbic (left) speaks at panel alongside Mark Gleason of the Philadelphia School Partnership and Mary Seawell of the Gates Family Foundation. Barbic returned to Memphis for a forum on K-12 philanthropy.

The founding superintendent of Tennessee’s Achievement School District says the next few years will tell whether the school turnaround initiative is on track to succeed.

In Memphis this week for a philanthropic event, Chris Barbic told Chalkbeat that he expects low-performing schools absorbed by the ASD to see more progress in the next two to three years.

That’s significantly slower than he envisioned when the charter school leader was recruited from Houston to lead the school turnaround program that launched in 2012 with federal money from Tennessee’s Race to the Top award. At the time, Barbic set the goal of moving schools in the state’s bottom 5 percent to the top 25 percent within five years. Most of those schools continue to struggle academically, however.

When he left the ASD in 2015, Barbic acknowledged that the goal was overly ambitious and said the extent of poverty in Memphis impeded change. However, he’s now hopeful that gains will come as ASD educators become more familiar with teaching to Tennessee’s new academic standards and standardized test.

“I have all the belief in the world in folks that are running schools,” said Barbic, now a senior education fellow with the Houston-based Laura and John Arnold Foundation, which supports the portfolio model of school governance.

Barbic was in Memphis for a two-day forum of the Philanthropy Roundtable, a network of charitable donors meeting with grantmakers to discuss strategies in education-related giving. Memphis is also home to the bulk of the ASD’s work, and Barbic was a frequent visitor during his tenure as superintendent from 2011 to 2015.

The state-run district is markedly different from those years when its charter-driven model was Tennessee’s highest-profile school turnaround tool. Now the district — which takes over low-performing schools and assigns them to charter operators to turn them around — is considered a tool of last resort under the state’s new education plan unveiled last year. Under-enrollment continues to plague many of its schools and was a big factor in the decisions of four charter operators to close their schools or exit the district.

The state is also seeking new leadership for the district, naming four candidates this week. Barbic’s successor, Malika Anderson, stepped down last fall after the state restructured the district’s central office.

“I hope to see someone hired who believes in the vision,” said Barbic, adding that the state’s role is “less about directly operating [schools] and more about finding great operators and giving them the opportunity.”

Barbic said a change in state standards and tests made it difficult for the ASD to track academic progress early on. After Tennessee shifted to new tests aligned with the standards, the first batch of results for the ASD were not promising. Students in its schools scored below the state averages in both elementary- and middle-school and high-school.

“It feels like to be fair, we’ve got to give folks to give a few years and rounds with new assessment,” he said. “We’ll see what happens over the next two to three years, and at that point, the schools that are doing well should get the opportunity to grow.”

Barbic spoke at the forum about the ASD, as well as his work with the Arnold Foundation to invest in cities pursuing strategies like common enrollment systems, expanded school options for families, and improved systems of accountability.

Memphis is among seven cities reaping some of those investments, Barbic said. The foundation has been working with the Memphis Education Fund, the city’s primary philanthropic organization to improve schools. (The Memphis fund receives support from several local philanthropies, including the Hyde Foundation. Chalkbeat also receives support from Hyde; read about our funding here.)

“It’s great to see how different communities have approached school quality and talent —  things people are working on here in Memphis,” Barbic said. “Folks in other cities are looking here to both what we got right and where we learned some lessons.”

Top teacher

Former Tennessee teacher of the year wins prestigious national award

Cicely Woodard, an eighth-grade math teacher in Franklin, receives the 2019 NEA Member Benefits Award for Teaching Excellence. (Photo courtesy of NEA)

Former Tennessee teacher of the year Cicely Woodard has received the nation’s highest teaching honor through its largest teacher organization.

The eighth-grade math educator in Franklin accepted the Member Benefits Award for Teaching Excellence from the NEA Foundation. The honor, which includes a $25,000 prize, was presented Friday at a gala in Washington, D.C.

“Teaching can be time-consuming, challenging, and sometimes overwhelming,” said Woodard. “But the impact that we make on the lives of students — and that they make on us — is powerful, life-changing, and enduring.”

A graduate of Central High School in Memphis, Woodard has been a teacher since 2003. She taught in Nashville public schools when she was named Tennessee’s top teacher in 2018 and has since moved to Franklin Special School District in Williamson County, south of Nashville, where she teaches at Freedom Middle School.

Woodard was among 46 educators nominated for the NEA Foundation award by their state education associations and was one of five finalists who received the Horace Mann Award for Teaching Excellence, which carries an additional $10,000 prize. The Member Benefits Award winner was announced at the finale of the gala attended by 900 people.

“Cicely has been selected for this award by her peers not only because of her mastery as an educator, but also because of the empathy and compassion she shows for her students,” said Harriet Sanford, president and CEO of the NEA Foundation.

Known for her inquiry-based approach to mathematics, Woodard holds a bachelor’s degree in math from the University of Memphis and a master’s degree in secondary math education from Vanderbilt University.

She has had numerous state-level roles, including serving on the education department’s teachers cabinet and on the testing task force created by former Education Commissioner Candice McQueen. She also is on the steering committee for the State Collaborative on Reforming Education, a Nashville-based education research and advocacy organization.

You can watch Woodard in her classroom in the video below.

Penny Schwinn

What we heard from Tennessee’s education commissioner during her first week

Tennessee Education Commissioner Penny Schwinn (right) speaks with students during a visit to LEAD Neely's Bend, a state-run charter school in Nashville. (Photo courtesy of LEAD Public Schools)

From students in the classroom to lawmakers on Capitol Hill, Penny Schwinn introduced herself as Tennessee’s education commissioner this week by praising the state’s academic gains over the last decade and promising to keep up that momentum by supporting school communities.

Schwinn toured seven schools in Middle and East Tennessee during her first three days on the job to get a firsthand look at what’s behind the academic growth that she’s watched from afar as chief accountability officer for Delaware’s education department and more recently as deputy commissioner over academics in Texas. She plans to visit schools in West Tennessee next week.

The goal, she said, is to “listen and learn,” and she told a statewide gathering of superintendents at midweek that Tennessee’s successes can be traced to the classroom.

“It has to do with the hard work of our educators … every single day getting up, walking in front of our children, and saying ‘You deserve an excellent education, and I’m going to be the one to give it to you,’” she said.

On policy, she affirmed Tennessee’s decade-long blueprint of setting rigorous academic standards, having a strong assessment to track performance, and holding school communities accountable for results.

“If we can keep that bar high … then I think that Tennessee will continue to improve at the rate that it has been,” she told legislators during an appearance before the House Education Committee.

Schwinn was the final cabinet member to start her job after being hired by Republican Gov. Bill Lee just days before his inauguration on Jan. 19. Her whirlwind first week began with school visits on Monday and concluded on Friday by attending a policy-heavy session of the State Board of Education.

But perhaps the biggest introduction came on Wednesday before district leaders attending a statewide meeting of the Tennessee Organization of School Superintendents, also known as TOSS. These are the local administrators she’ll work with most closely to try to improve student performance.

The superintendents group had stayed neutral about who should succeed Candice McQueen in the state’s top policy job but hoped for a leader with extensive experience both in the classroom and as a Tennessee school superintendent. Schwinn is neither, having started her career in a Baltimore classroom through Teach For America and later founding a charter school in her hometown of Sacramento, California, where she also was a principal and then became an assistant district superintendent.

She appeared to wow them.

“Our job at the state Department of Education is to figure out what you all need to help your teachers be the best that they can be for our students. My job is to lead this department to ensure that this happens,” she told the superintendents.

Schwinn shared a personal story about adopting her oldest daughter, now age 6, and the “powerful moment” at the hospital when the birth mom said she loved her baby but couldn’t provide her with the future she deserves. “I think you can,” she told Schwinn, “and so I’m giving you my baby.”

Penny Schwinn speaks to the Tennessee Organization of School Superintendents. (Photo courtesy of TOSS)

“When I think about my responsibility as a teacher or a principal or as commissioner of the state of Tennessee, I think about all of our parents … who pack up lunches, pack up backpacks, drop them off at the door and they give us their babies,” she said.

“That is the most powerful and important responsibility that we have as educators,” she said, “and I take that very, very seriously.”

Several superintendents stood up to thank her.

“I am encouraged. I feel like you have the heart that we all have,” said Linda Cash, who leads Bradley County Schools in southeast Tennessee.

“What she did most is she listened,” said TOSS Executive Director Dale Lynch of his earlier meeting with Schwinn. “As superintendents and directors, that’s very important to us.”

Here are other things we heard Schwinn say this week:

On whether Tennessee will continue its 3-year-old literacy program known as Read to be Ready:

“It is incredibly important that we have initiatives that stick and that have staying power. I think we’ve all had the experience of having … one-and-done initiatives that come and go. … From [my early school] visits, it was underscored time and time again the importance of initiatives like that.”

On the role of early childhood education:

“I think that early education — and that’s both academic and social development — is incredibly important to ensure that we get kindergartners who are ready to learn and ready to be successful.”

On the state-run turnaround district for Tennessee’s lowest-performing schools:

“High expectations are the vision of the Achievement School District, but I think there’s a lot of work to be done candidly. There are good conversations to be had and some questions to be asked. But I will say that I am committed to ensuring that our lowest-performing schools achieve and grow at a much faster rate than they have been.”

On Texas’ academic growth in the 1990s that later flattened:

“They got very comfortable. It was, ‘We’re just doing just fine, we’re doing a great job,’ and then slowly some of the big reforms that they put into place in the ’90s started peeling back little by little. … It’s hard to get things done, but it’s really hard to hold the line.”

Here are six other things to know about Penny Schwinn.