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Education officials: Tennessee’s weakest schools improved during Barbic’s tenure

Students and their teacher on the first day of school in 2014 at Freedom Preparatory Academy, a charter school authorized in Memphis by the state's Achievement School District
Students and their teacher on the first day of school in 2014 at Freedom Preparatory Academy, a charter school authorized in Memphis by the state's Achievement School District
J. Zubrzycki

Tennessee’s efforts to improve low-performing schools are in a far stronger place now than they were when Chris Barbic started the state-run Achievement School District in 2011, state education officials said Friday in a press release about his departure.

Gov. Bill Haslam and Education Commissioner Candice McQueen praised Barbic’s passion and leadership, saying that the Texas-bred official had laid important groundwork in the state’s pioneering efforts to improve low-achieving schools.

But both emphasized that the ASD — which has not yet shown the sweeping test score gains that it promised — is just one of multiple strategies underway to ensure that all students in the state attend a high-performing school.

“Five years ago the state had no structured plans for schools in the bottom five percent,” Haslam said in the statement. “Today, with the ASD as a key tool in our toolkit, there is an intervention for nearly every one of these schools and clear-cut strategies for serving students that are furthest behind.”

Indeed, of the 83 schools in the bottom 5 percent in 2012, the first time the state compiled a list of “priority schools,” just 29 are in the Achievement School District. More are participating in turnaround initiatives devised by traditional school districts, such as Shelby County Schools’ Innovation Zone program. Other priority schools have closed because of their poor performance.

The press release notes that student test scores in the bottom 5 percent schools have increased four times as fast as scores in other schools. But the scores remain very low, on average.

Test scores set for release later this month will provide an updated view of performance at ASD schools and in other low-performing schools.

Whatever the results, there’s no question that Tennessee has far more ground to cover if it is to ensure that all students are able to graduate with strong skills — something that Barbic himself spelled out in his departure announcement and McQueen echoed in the state’s press release.

“Chris has taken the ASD from an ambitious concept to a living and breathing organization,” McQueen said. “Thanks to Chris’ leadership and direction, the district has catalyzed statewide change and is well-positioned to move us toward the next phase of work.”

The complete press release is below.

Superintendent of Achievement School District Announces Departure

Statewide effort enters fourth year, poised to serve 10,500 students

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE

July 17, 2015

NASHVILLE— The superintendent of Tennessee’s Achievement School District, Chris Barbic, announced today his departure from the state-run district which serves schools in the bottom five percent in terms of academic achievement.

Barbic has led the Achievement School District (ASD) since its creation in 2011, when the district was launched as part of Tennessee’s “First to the Top” legislation. The district’s mission is to move the state’s bottom five percent of schools to the top 25 percent. This school year, 14 public school operators authorized by the ASD will lead transformation efforts in 29 schools serving approximately 10,500 students in Memphis and Nashville. Barbic has led the ASD’s expansion, beginning with six schools during the 2012-13 school year. He will remain in his position throughout the fall to ensure a smooth transition.

“The ASD has been part of systemic change at the state level in how we work to improve our lowest achieving schools. Five years ago the state had no structured plans for schools in the bottom five percent,” Gov. Bill Haslam said. “Today, with the ASD as a key tool in our toolkit, there is an intervention for nearly every one of these schools and clear-cut strategies for serving students that are furthest behind. I am grateful for Chris’ passion and courage in taking on this role and proud of the successes we have seen over the three years of the ASD’s operation.”

Since the creation of the ASD, the average student proficiency in Tennessee’s Priority Schools has grown four times faster than student proficiency in non-Priority Schools. According to the current Priority Schools list of schools performing in the bottom five percent, 4,500 fewer students attended Priority Schools in Memphis in 2014 compared to 2012. The ASD, under Barbic’s leadership, has been a driving force in this work.

“Chris has taken the ASD from an ambitious concept to a living and breathing organization that provides thousands of Tennessee families more academic options for their students and compels local districts to act with greater urgency,“ Education Commissioner Candice McQueen said. “The work that you take on as a turnaround district around is deeply challenging, and Chris has led this effort with vigor and drive. Thanks to Chris’ leadership and direction, the district has catalyzed statewide change and is well-positioned to move us toward the next phase of work.”

Students in the ASD outgained their state peers in reading and math during their second year in existence, and ASD-authorized charter schools that opened in 2012 averaged 11-point proficiency gains over their first two years.

“I hope we have made our ASD students and families proud of what we have built so far and that they are as hopeful as I am about the future of our kids,” Barbic said. “I will be leaving confident that Tennessee’s schools are better off today than when we began, but convinced that the work ahead requires fresh leadership committed to our shared goal: the very best education possible for every child in this great state.”

Barbic’s successor has yet to be named.

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