Chalk Talk: Chris Barbic on Leading Tennessee’s Achievement School District

Moving the worst-performing schools to the top 25%--is it possible?


Originally posted on Chalkbeat by Daarel Burnette on April 7, 2015 and reprinted here with permission.

Chris Barbic is navigating one of his most challenging seasons as superintendent of the state’s Achievement School District.

[Related: More Time on Task Leads to Better Student Results]

Tasked with turning around schools ranked academically in the bottom 5% of Tennessee’s public schools, the district is completing its third year of operation in what Barbic calls a “battleground state” in the education change movement. Most of the priority schools under ASD oversight are in Memphis, where community loyalty to neighborhood schools is fierce. Last year, the ASD’s process of taking control of struggling schools – and then transitioning them to charter schools – proved contentious, with protests and three charter operators pulling out of school matches.

While the ASD appears this year to have weathered a bevy of bills in the state legislature aimed at scrapping the ASD or limiting its authority, it’s still smarting from the withdrawal last month of nationally heralded YES Prep, five months before the charter school network was to assume control over one school in south Memphis. The exit was particularly thorny for Barbic because he helped found YES Prep in 1998 and led it to national prominence before leaving Houston to head the ASD.

In an interview with Chalkbeat, Barbic, 44, talks about the difficult work of turning around struggling schools, the lessons he’s learned while shepherding Tennessee’s pioneering turnaround district, and his message to the nation’s education community about change and improvement. Here are the highlights:

There’s a huge educational experiment going on in Tennessee, and it’s called the Achievement School District. But most Tennesseans aren’t even aware of the ASD and its significance in big-picture education conversations across the nation. How would you explain what the ASD is and what it’s trying to do in Tennessee?

The ASD is a statewide school district that’s focused on the priority schools that are defined as the bottom 5% in the state. Our job is to improve outcomes in those schools. We’re doing that in three ways: first, authorizing great [charter] organizations to run the priority schools; second, pushing the autonomy and resources down to those educators that are running the organization so they’ve got the authority to make the decisions that matter most around educating the kids; and third, holding them accountable for results. We believe that by partnering with the organizations, giving them the resources and autonomy to be effective, and then holding them accountable for results – that’s the best role we can play as a state-level district to ensure that kids are getting a better quality education than they’ve been receiving.

Whenever a state wrests control from a school or local district, it’s got to be difficult for everyone. In Memphis, for instance, the ASD now oversees 22 schools that once were under the purview of Shelby County Schools. How do you work with the local district to keep this relationship constructive during the turnaround process?

Well, I think you’re right. It is difficult. I think part of it is starting with acknowledging that from the beginning. When I took this job in 2011, I took it knowing full well that there would be situations where we would butt heads or not see eye to eye with the local district, and that was going to create some tense conversations. I think my biggest surprise has been the degree to which, especially in Shelby County, adults have been able to put kids’ interests first. That goes all the way back to Dr. [Kriner] Cash when he was superintendent. We’ve built an even stronger relationship with [Superintendent] Dorsey [Hopson] and the folks on his staff. There are times the relationship gets portrayed in the media as a combative one. And there are times when we disagree and that’s just the nature of the work. Much more often than not, we work together. When things come up, we talk and we hash it out. It’s easier to do that because I know in my heart that Dorsey is there because he wants to do what’s right for kids. I think if you ask him, he’d say the same thing about me. We are both clear about what our agendas are. And when you have a partner whose intentions are pure, it’s much easier to handle dissension or times when you don’t agree because you know the other person is coming at this from a good place.

This year, there were at least 22 bills in the state legislature aimed either at doing away with the ASD or significantly limiting its authority, which certainly is a reflection that not everyone is a fan of yours. What is your response to the legislators and constituents behind these efforts?

I haven’t talked to all of the politicians who have sponsored these bills. I’m going to give everybody the benefit of the doubt and assume that they’ve got reasons for why they’re doing this and they think it’s the right thing to do.

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