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.”

Movers and shakers

These Colorado lawmakers will shape education policy in 2019

PHOTO: Joe Amon/The Denver Post
Colorado House of Representatives

When the Colorado General Assembly convenes in January, Democrats will control both chambers for the first time since 2014. That shift in the balance of power, along with a lot of turnover in both chambers, means new faces on the committees that will shape education policy.

The incoming committee chairs in both chambers  — state Rep. Barbara McLachlan of Durango and state Sen. Nancy Todd of Aurora — are former teachers themselves and experienced lawmakers. The ranking Republican on the House Education Committee, state Rep. Jim Wilson of Salida, is also a former teacher and school superintendent. He’s the only Republican returning to the committee from the previous session.

In the House, Democrats now hold a three-seat majority on the committees responsible for deciding which bills will advance to a floor vote. In the Senate, Democrats have a one-vote advantage on most committees.

The new Democratic majorities open the possibility of advancing issues that once stalled in the Republican-controlled Senate, like funding full-day kindergarten — a priority of incoming governor Jared Polis — and expanding access to mental health services in school. But these decisions will have to be made without major new revenue and in competition with other budget needs. Democrats may also have to grapple with disagreements among their own ranks on charter schools, teacher evaluations, and school choice, issues that have long enjoyed bipartisan consensus. 

But one newly appointed member of the Senate Education Committee won’t serve out his term. State Sen. Daniel Kagan, a Democrat from Cherry Hills Village, recently announced he’ll resign in January following accusations that he repeatedly used a women’s restroom in the state Capitol. State Rep. Jeff Bridges, a Democrat from Greenwood Village, has announced his intention to seek the vacancy and could take Kagan’s place on the education committee.

The other new Democrat on the Senate committee, Tammy Story, has a long record as an education advocate in Jefferson County. She worked to recall school board members there that supported charters and performance-based teacher pay.

Senator-elect Paul Lundeen, a Republican from Monument, is a former member of the State Board of Education and served on the House Education Committee. State Sen. Owen Hill of Colorado Springs, the ranking Republican on the committee, is the former chair.

House Education Committee:

Democrats:

Chair: Rep. Barbara McLachlan, Durango

Vice-Chair, rep.-elect Bri Buentello, Pueblo

Rep. Janet Buckner, Aurora

Rep. James Coleman, Denver

Rep.-elect Lisa Cutter, Jefferson County

Rep. Tony Exum Sr., Colorado Springs

Rep.-elect Julie McCluskie, Dillon

Rep. Dafna Michaelson Jenet, Commerce City

Republicans:

Ranking member: Rep. Jim Wilson, Salida

Rep.-elect Mark Baisley, Roxborough Park

Rep.-elect Tim Geitner, Colorado Springs

Rep.-elect Colin Larson, Ken Caryl

Rep. Kim Ransom, Littleton

Senate Education Committee:

Democrats:

Chair: Nancy Todd, Aurora

Vice-Chair: sen.-elect Tammy Story, Conifer

Sen. Daniel Kagan, Cherry Hills Village

Republicans:

Ranking member: Sen. Owen Hill, Colorado Springs

Sen.-elect Paul Lundeen, Monument

Movers and shakers

Memphis Education Fund has a new leader. Here’s what the group will put money behind going forward.

PHOTO: Memphis Education Fund
Terence Patterson was the former head of the Downtown Memphis Commission and has been on the Education Fund’s board since it began as Teacher Town.

Memphis’ most prominent education philanthropic fund officially has a new leader in former interim CEO Terence Patterson – and one of his big goals for Memphis Education Fund is to finance more creative, grass-roots solutions to education problems facing the city.

“We’re not going to sit back and wait for someone to bring us an idea,” Patterson said. “We’re getting out in the schools and meeting regularly with school leaders, as well as education partners from across the country.”

(Memphis Education Fund supports Chalkbeat. Learn more about our funding here.)

The philanthropy is significant in the Memphis education funding landscape – where cash-strapped districts and charter schools seek outside funding funneled through the Education Fund to improve school facilities, add new curriculums, and even fund in-school positions.

Patterson wants to see multiple types of giving as he enters his second month as CEO.

He is introducing “innovation grants.” His organization will work with education partners, districts, and school leaders to identify innovative programs already happening in Memphis classrooms or elsewhere. Patterson said there’s not a set dollar amount for the grants or any formal application process.

In addition, next year the Education Fund will focus on initiatives that help parents better understand their school choices, increase the number of quality school offerings in Memphis, and improve equitable access to school facilities.

“We see this as helping to fill gaps in bringing quality resources with quality instruction to schools,” Patterson said. “We’re in a position to collaborate with the county commission, the school board, and district leadership to really push on academic achievement.”

The Memphis Education Fund has invested more than $50 million in education initiatives since 2015 — ranging from helping charter schools pay for new curriculums to bolstering teacher and principal pipelines.

The philanthropy has also worked with parent advocacy group Memphis Lift on the possibility of creating a “unified enrollment system.” Each family across the city would fill out a common application listing their top school choices. They would then submit those choices electronically by a deadline that is the same for every parent.

Currently, Memphis has multiple types of schools that require applying in different ways, on different websites. Supporters of unified enrollment, such as Memphis Lift, say it will benefit parents who don’t have the time to research schools on their own.

“To have a true choice district, this is an important component,” Patterson said. “The Memphis landscape has its own nuances. … but common enrollment is an important factor in how we think about choice.”

He also said he hopes to see his organization be more vocal about education policy and continue to prioritize groups focused on teacher and school leader recruitment and retention.

Originally called Teacher Town, the fund was created in 2014 with help from a major investment by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. Memphis education leaders and local philanthropists wanted to transform Memphis into a destination for talented teachers. In 2016, the group adopted a broader goal of improving all schools, brought in a new leader, Marcus Robinson from Indianapolis, and joined Education Cities, a national collective of local groups seeking to reshape schools in their cities

Robinson left in April for a job in St. Louis, and Patterson stepped in as interim. Patterson was the former head of the Downtown Memphis Commission and has been on the Education Fund’s board since it began as Teacher Town. He was the former chief of staff for Chicago Public Schools, later becoming the director of the Office of New Schools in Chicago, where he managed 113 new charter schools.

Patterson said he is the right fit for the job because of his background with Memphis schools, in managing districts, and in fundraising. He also said part of his job responsibilities would be bringing more national funders to Memphis.

Outgoing Shelby County Schools Superintendent Dorsey Hopson said the district would be “thrilled to partner” with Patterson.

“He’s world class, and I can’t think of a better selection to support this community’s work to continue to improve student achievement and access to high-quality education,” Hopson said. “He’s worked in a large school district and understands the Memphis context given his grantmaking experience.”