Achievement School District, Tenn.
My goal is to do whatever it takes to give low-income students access to the same opportunities and resources as their more affluent peers. My experience has been that when this happens, ALL students achieve at high levels.
When he began his job as superintendent of Tennessee’s Achievement School District, Chris Barbic committed to spending a significant portion of his time—often in one-on-one meetings in people’s living rooms—with parents and community members in Frayser, the distressed north Memphis neighborhood where most of his schools were located.
Some system leaders he knew discouraged him, suggesting that his time would be better spent on “more important issues” than talking and listening, especially with skeptics.
“Some people still see that as a ‘nice to do.’ But I know it’s a ‘must do.’ This work is not going to happen if people don’t believe in what we’re trying to do and stand shoulder-to-shoulder with us to help make it happen,” Barbic said.
“There’s a deep commitment required to look into parents’ eyes and make a promise—to them, to their kids, to their community. People know that when things get tough, we’re not bailing on them.”
Barbic speaks from experience, having founded the first YES Prep public charter school in one of the oldest and lowest-income Hispanic communities in east Houston while still a young teacher. He won approval to create a charter school in early 1998 and recruited 300 students, hired teachers and planned facilities, transportation, food service—all in six months, in time for school to start in the fall.
“They welcomed this white guy who wasn’t even from Texas with open arms. But they knew me. I taught their kids. I coached the Little League team. I was part of the community,” he said.
In just its first year, that grade 6-10 school was among the top performers in the state. But that wasn’t enough. Barbic chose to aim YES Prep’s students at the same expectations of Houston’s private boarding schools: acceptance to a four-year college as a graduation requirement. Nearly all of YES Prep’s students would be the first in their families to attend college. It didn’t come easy, but they achieved both 100 percent graduation and 100 percent college-going with the first graduating class. The class valedictorian—whose parents didn’t finish eighth grade—attended Stanford University.
As demand grew throughout Houston, more YES Prep schools opened. In 2012, the 13-school network became the first recipient of The Broad Prize for Public Charter Schools, which recognizes charter models that show the best academic outcomes, particularly for traditionally disadvantaged students.
“If you create the right expectations for kids, get a group of adults who believe in what kids can achieve and provide the right support and environment, any kid—any kid—can go to college,” Barbic said.
Known for his seemingly boundless energy and friendly, frank conversation-style, Barbic brings the same level of determination to his present role heading Tennessee’s Achievement School District. The statewide system, modeled after Louisiana’s Recovery School District, seeks to turn around some of the state’s lowest-performing schools.
But ASD’s plan extends beyond incremental growth. Here, Barbic again set audacious goals from the outset: Improve the bottom 5 percent of schools in Tennessee—while maintaining their zoned student enrollment—such that they would perform among the top 25 percent of the state’s schools within five years.
To staff these schools, Barbic and his team didn’t just launch a search for excellent teachers. They also joined forces with the county school district, local university and other partners to transform the local educator pipeline and help turn Memphis into Teacher Town USA.
“We need people who know how to bring their A-game,” said Barbic, sounding as much like a football coach as a school system leader. “You have to have a critical mass of strong teachers to get the quality of instruction that our kids need in the ASD, in local charters and in Shelby County Schools. We’re committed to growing and supporting great teachers. The power of that is how you transform a school and a community.”
In addition, the ASD attracted top-flight school leaders and operators—with final selections made by community and parent advisory councils—and offered them more autonomy on school-level decision making in exchange for results. Barbic considers empowerment one of his main duties. As he puts it, “The central work isn’t happening in the central office. The central work is happening in the classroom with kids and teachers, and our job is to be the support team.”
Barbic’s approach has helped the ASD win praise from a broad array of Memphians, even among those who were initially skeptical. Former school board member Sara Lewis, an early vocal critic, now calls him a good friend and says she has come to admire Barbic for being “truly committed to changing the face of public education in Memphis and all over Tennessee.”
The excitement around transformation in Memphis is reaching a fever pitch. And it’s homegrown. Says Barbic, “It used to be that success in this neighborhood meant leaving. Now success means coming home to be part of something that is bigger than all of us. It’s not about a bunch of white guys from east Memphis calling the shots anymore.
“If all of the seven-year-olds in our schools never know what it’s like to be four grade levels behind in reading—like their parents might have been—and can graduate and go on to do whatever they want to do… that’s what this is about.”