Chris Barbic on Leading Tennessee’s Achievement School District

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

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What are some lessons learned?

I think we are learning a lot. But you have to keep in mind that we only have two years worth of data. If you look at last year’s data, our phase-in [in which schools are transitioned into charter schools one grade at a time] schools did well. As much controversy as phase-ins cause, just look at the results. Last year at our phase-in schools, you saw 22-point gains in reading and 16-point gains in math. At least initially, that’s better than what we’ve seen when we do the whole-school conversion. We still expect our whole-school conversions to meet our goals but are learning that their path getting there may look different. Our position is that we want our charters to make the decision regarding how they grow their school. And if they feel committed to doing phase-ins, we’re going to support them in that work. If they are committed to whole-school conversions, we support that too.

I think a second lesson is around the depth of the poverty in Memphis and the obstacle that creates in educating our students. Obviously, when we looked at the info on our kids before bringing a school into the ASD, we knew most of the kids we serve are living in poverty and that poverty plays a factor at school. I’ve been doing this for more than 20 years and every single school I’ve worked with has been in a community dealing with poverty. But the poverty in Houston, where I worked before coming to Tennessee, compared to the poverty in Memphis, is different. In Houston, it was more of an immigrant poverty. In Memphis, it’s more generational poverty. I think that the depth of the generational poverty and what our kids bring into school every day makes it even harder than we initially expected. We underestimated that. To address it, we’ve worked hard to develop partnerships with organizations that provide wraparound and social service supports to our students and families. We still have work to do, but I believe we are making good progress.

Lastly, it’s important to have a pipeline of teachers and school leaders who are going to be able to do this work in a sustainable way. That’s as much a question as it is a lesson learned. Asking someone to come in and spend their career in a priority school, given the level of intensity required day in and day out to be successful, is a lot to ask of any educator.

Shelby County School leaders have to offset a $125 million budget deficit next school year and have partly blamed the projected loss of an additional 2,657 students to a growing crop of charter schools and the ASD. Do you think you are responsible for the district’s budget woes?

The dollars follow the kids. So when a child becomes part of the ASD, we take responsibility for providing for those kids. I think that it comes back to fixed costs vs. variable costs. If the number of kids you are serving shrinks, then you would think that the teachers and all the supports required to serve that smaller number of kids should also shrink. The central office needs to be smaller when you’re serving fewer kids. But I would argue that should probably happen anyway. I believe in bottom-up vs. top-down. So if you buy this idea that people in the schools need to be making the decisions that matter most around hiring, budgeting resources, determining programs and determining the length of the school day, school week and school year, then you shouldn’t have massive fixed costs at the central office. We’ve got a small support team in the ASD. We’re going to be serving 10,000 kids next year. Our district’s central office will probably never go beyond 30-40 people. So, I get that it’s tough, and I get that budgets are shrinking. But I think if you zoom up 30,000 feet, for the city, it’s not going to end up resulting in a net loss of resources or positions. What’s happening is a shift. There are resources and jobs shifting from a [district] monopoly provider of schools to a lot of different organizations that will be operating schools. And we need to concentrate less on what type of school it is and more on the quality of the education each school is delivering to its students.

There are a lot of educators and policymakers across America who are closely watching the ASD and its outcomes. Some states, such as Georgia, Nevada, and Texas, are looking at similar approaches to address underperforming schools. And there are several large research projects tracking your every move. At this point, what are they seeing? And what message would you like to send to the national education community?

On the positive side, people are not only recognizing that we can no longer accept a low level of performance in our schools, legislators and policymakers are taking bold action in addressing our most struggling schools. We’ve got to get the education right if we as a country want to maintain our stature in the world. And just educating the top half of kids to high levels is no longer good enough. Setting up state-run districts focused on priority schools creates energy, focus, and urgency in creating a quality education for students that have for far too long been ignored or neglected. All of this is extremely important and good. But in education, we tend to look for silver bullets and we need to be conscious that setting up ASD-type organizations doesn’t turn into the next silver bullet in the reform community. Every time a state does this, it is important that it work well. During the first decade of charter schools, for every good charter, there were five lousy ones. But if we are setting up achievement school districts, every one of these needs to be good. We can’t be in a situation where for every one state that does this well, five states screw it up and get it wrong. It is why these studies and research projects are so important. Lessons we learn can easily get captured to help other states set these up effectively, get it right, and help even more of our students and families.

The ASD usually turns over its schools to charter organizations, but you also chose to operate a handful of schools yourself in the Frayser community of Memphis. Some of those ASD schools have continued to struggle academically. What happened?

Last year we directly operated six schools in Frayser. Two did really well, two did moderately well, and two struggled. It was our second year of running schools on top of all the other work we were responsible for in order to build and run a school district. I think for us, it goes back to the idea of accountability for results. All of us — ASD, charters, and districts — should only be allowed to run schools if we do a good job. And while I believe we have made progress in all of the Frayser schools from the school culture standpoint, if you look at achievement, this year is going to be a real telling year for the first set of schools we opened that will complete their third year in the ASD. Research says that by the end of the third year, you should see gains in proficiency that show the school is on the right track. We know our students and staff are working hard, and we are cautiously optimistic about our end-of-year results.

What is your plan for these schools?

We are in the process of determining the long-term plan for these schools. One option is to convert them to a charter school network that will eventually return to Shelby County Schools. Another option is to transition them directly back to Shelby County Schools. All of our schools, regardless of type of school, will eventually go back to the local district. We will take the next 12 months to work with SCS to determine which option makes the most sense. So I think the question we have to answer is how do they go back? Do they go back as direct-run schools or as charter schools?

Last month, YES Prep pulled out of its agreement with the ASD to begin operating one school in South Memphis. That had to be a great disappointment to you, both professionally and personally. Now that you’ve had time to process YES Prep’s exit, what are your thoughts about why this happened, what it tells us about the charter landscape in Memphis, and what this means going forward as ASD continues its turnaround work?

I was shocked and disappointed in YES Prep’s decision. As I have said before, not everyone is cut out to do the difficult work of turning around neighborhood schools. I believe Memphis has some of the best conditions in the country for educators to start and operate high-performing charter schools. There is a need; there is a great policy environment; the leadership across the city is focused on making our schools better; and there is a local philanthropic community invested in both Shelby County Schools and ASD priority schools. Most importantly, we have terrific and committed educators who are working in our ASD schools across Memphis.

Can you tell us about your level of commitment to the ASD and to the state of Tennessee now that you’re almost four years in?

I am as optimistic and committed as ever. I believe in the work we are doing. I am excited about the progress being made. I am committed to taking the lessons we have learned to make the ASD even better moving forward.

EDITOR’S NOTE: Each month, Chalkbeat conducts a Q&A interview with a different leader, innovator, influential thinker, or hero across Tennessee’s education community. We invite our readers to e-mail Chalkbeat your suggestions for future subjects to

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