exit strategy

Chris Barbic, founding superintendent of state-run Achievement School District, to exit

PHOTO: Daarel Burnette
Achievement School District Superintendent Chris Barbic visits Georgian Hills Elementary, a Memphis school that the state-run district has operated since 2013.

Chris Barbic, the hard-charging superintendent of Tennessee’s school turnaround district, is resigning at the end of the year.

Now that the Achievement School District is no longer new, it needs a different leader, Barbic told senior officials on Thursday, according to multiple people who were informed about his departure plans. They said he also cited health reasons, including the 2014 heart attack that kept him out of work for weeks, for deciding to move on.

Barbic shared his news during a series of meetings and phone calls with ASD staff members on Thursday afternoon and evening, according to multiple people who said they were told not to discuss the change publicly before the district made an official announcement.

Barbic announced the news in an email to supporters early Friday morning.

Barbic’s impending departure comes at a time of transition for the district, which was formed with the ambitious goal of vaulting the state’s weakest schools into the top tier in just a few years. The state is just two weeks away from releasing test scores that he has said would be the first meaningful measure of whether the district is achieving that goal.

State education officials appointed Barbic to lead the ASD on the strength of his record as a charter operator in Texas when they formed the special district in 2012. Under his leadership, the state recruited charter operators to assume management of 22 schools, almost all in Memphis, that had been among the lowest-performing 5 percent in the state.

Unusually, the ASD asks charter operators to improve existing schools, rather than start new ones. The approach has drawn national attention because efforts to make low-performing schools better have stymied many districts.

In his email early Friday, Barbic offered a dim prognosis on that pioneering approach. “As a charter school founder, I did my fair share of chest pounding over great results,” he wrote. “I’ve learned that getting these same results in a zoned neighborhood school environment is much harder.”

Indeed, as the ASD has matured, it has experienced significant growing pains, including ones related to its student population — and its already formidable task is on the verge of growing more challenging.

Public protest contributed to several charter operators — including YES Prep, the network that Barbic founded in Houston — pulling out of agreements to take over schools under the ASD last year. (Last week, Barbic announced that the district is overhauling the way it involves communities in deciding how their schools should change.)

Meanwhile, test scores in year two suggested that dramatic gains were not underway, although Barbic said it was too soon to tell whether the school overhauls were working and that the extent of poverty in Memphis impeded change. “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,” he told Chalkbeat last spring. “We underestimated that.”

The district faced a barrage of legislation designed to curb its growth last year from lawmakers unhappy about its tactics and sluggish academic results. “There’s 22 bills that have been filed right now to either try to kill this thing or pull it apart,” Barbic told lawmakers in February, “and this thing hasn’t even gotten out of the Petri dish.”

Most of those bills died, but two that passed benefited the district by expanding the number of students eligible to attend its schools and by allowing it to charge charter operators to run its schools.

A third bill that passed prohibits the ASD from intervening in low-performing schools where test scores are on the rise. That means the district could face greater challenges in showing test score gains at its schools in the future.

The pressure intensifies amid a looming budget crunch and shifting priorities among state education officials.

Tennessee used more than 10 percent of its $500 million windfall in federal education funds to launch the ASD. Those funds, which arrived through the Race to the Top competition to spur education policy changes, have now disappeared.

So has the commissioner who spearheaded the ASD’s creation and hired Barbic, Kevin Huffman, who resigned late last year. His replacement, Candice McQueen, has said she supports the initiative but wants it to become financially sustainable.

Dramatic test score gains and improved community relations would go farthest in justifying shifting the ASD’s management costs to taxpayers, which could be necessary in the future if its significant philanthropic support wanes. But both of those things have proved difficult to elicit so far.

By exiting the district, Barbic is clearing the way for someone else to take a stab at those persistent challenges. He told ASD officials that he hoped Malika Anderson, the district’s chief portfolio officer, would take over after he leaves, according to people who were part of the information rollout.

McQueen will appoint Barbic’s replacement. She declined to comment on Thursday.

Barbic — whose tenure will slightly exceed the average length for urban superintendents — is not the first ASD official to exit in recent months. Ash Solar, who ran the district’s schools in Memphis, and founding chief of staff Elliot Smalley have also recently moved on.

News of Barbic’s impending departure stirred anxiety about the future of the district on Thursday.

Stephanie Love, a Shelby County school board member and community activist who has publicly criticized the ASD, said she worried that his departure would erode already tenuous community relations.

“Even though I don’t agree with a lot of things the ASD has done, I will say Barbic made himself available for me to talk to him,” said Love, whose son attends an ASD school. “I was always able to let him know exactly how I felt and exactly how the community felt.”

This story has been updated to clarify aspects of the Achievement School District’s finances and to include additional details about recent legislation related to the ASD.

early childhood

This growing program is addressing Detroit’s literacy crisis — just don’t say it’s filling a “word gap”

PHOTO: Koby Levin
Yuliana Moreno told parents at her LENA Start graduation on Tuesday that her children have become more talkative because of the program.

A small program that started in Detroit last year with an innovative plan to improve infants’ language skills has proved promising and is preparing to expand.

When Concepción Orea entered the program, LENA Start, with her 18-month-old son, the boy was making a few simple sounds. She worried that he was displaying the same delays as her older son, a kindergartner who receives speech therapy.

“Now he grabs a book and pretends to read,” she said, speaking in Spanish at a graduation ceremony for the program on Tuesday. “Watching him pick up more sounds… it’s an emotion I don’t know how to explain.”

Over the course of the free 13-month program, Orea was coached to speak more to her child and read books to him. Her son was outfitted with a recorder that shows his — and her — progress. Each family is asked to place a recording device in a bib near their child’s chest, where it tracks and analyzes the sounds the baby hears at home.

The approach is based on research showing that when parents make a habit of talking to a very young child, that child is more likely to learn to read on grade level, with all the long-term benefits that come with literacy. That’s a big deal in all of the 17 cities where LENA operates, but the stakes are even higher in Detroit, where a tough new “read-or-flunk” state law, taking effect next year, will tighten the screws on a citywide literacy crisis.

“What our data are telling us is that for every one month in LENA Start, there are two months of growth,” said Kenyatta Stephens, Chief Operating Officer of Black Family Development, Inc., one of the program’s funders.

Growth, in this case, mostly means an increase in “turn-taking,” a verbal back-and-forth between parents and children that researchers view as an important sign of healthy language development. Parents are trained to verbalize their thoughts to their children, then look for a response.

A rise in turn-taking also correlates with other benefits: Parents talk to their children more frequently, for one, and kids are exposed to less electronic noise from TVs or cell phones over the course of the program. LENA gives books to parents, and parents typically report reading aloud more to their child.

The program started in Detroit last year with 50 parent-child-pairs. Thanks to promising results, LENA Start’s nonprofit supporters — including Black Family Development, the Kellogg Foundation, the LENA Foundation, the Michigan Children’s Health Access Plan, and Brilliant Detroit — plan to enroll another 150 parent-child pairs in Detroit.

(The Kellogg Foundation funds Chalkbeat. Read our code of ethics here.)

Program leaders say they hope to keep expanding, though the recording technology is pricey.

Using the bib recordings, LENA Start’s computers produce a detailed report for parents. It tells them how much electronic sound the baby is hearing  (differentiating between a computer and a live voice), how much the baby is speaking, and how often the baby “takes turns” in conversation with someone else in the home.

The program draws on  the research of Betty Hart and Todd Risley, the source of the much-cited notion that children from poor families typically hear 30 million fewer words before age three than their non-poor peers. That statistic went viral in academic and nonprofit circles, but it has come under fire in recent years, partly thanks to data collected by LENA programs, which pointed to a gap that is probably closer to 4 million words.

The challenge for program managers in Detroit is working to close the gaps that do exist while rejecting the idea that poor families do less for their children. Framing the problem as a “word gap” can be discouraging to parents and can even cue educators to expect less from children whose families live in poverty.

That may be why Stephens sees the recording data as “an affirmation tool.” Even when parents are stretched thin by poverty, she says they are able to change their speaking habits, especially when they’re given evidence that it is helping their child.

“What’s important is that we’re affirming that they’re already their child’s best teacher,” she said.

That may be one reason that Detroit’s program boasts an unusually high graduation rate — upwards of 90 percent of families compared to the national average of 74 percent.

Graduation ceremonies tend to be loud, Stephens said, because babies become more vocal over the length of the program.

Yuliana Moreno, one of the graduates, entered the program almost by default. She was already at Brilliant Detroit’s Southwest Detroit location at least twice a week before she entered LENA Start, attending infant massage classes for her seven-month-old and English classes for herself.

She said the benefits of the program extended to both of her children, even the one who didn’t attend LENA Start with her. It’s not that she wasn’t talking to them before — it’s just that no one had told her how important her communication could be, and the normal demands of life got in the way.

These days, she reports reading to her children more often, and says she uses her cell phone less while they’re around.

appeals

Will charter schools rebuffed in Chicago find a savior in the state? Why the outlook is iffy.

At Moving Everest Charter School one recent morning, first-grade teacher Alexis Collins gestured proudly at her room of 15 students, all wearing oversize headphones and quietly peering at laptop screens loading a math program that would launch them into elementary computer programming.

“We start them off with coding, so by the time they are in eighth grade, they’ll know what a person with an associate’s degree would know,” Collins said.

The school is so confident that its controversial personalized learning program will help raise up children from struggling neighborhoods that its directors proposed opening a second campus.

But the Chicago school board, perhaps recognizing the shifting political tide, denied the proposal from Everest and two others seeking to open new charters, despite lobbying by supportive parents.

Now Moving Everest is pinning its hopes on an appeal to the Illinois State Charter Commission.

Another charter applicant also plans to appeal: Kemet Leadership Academy, which proposed a middle school for at-risk boys in Englewood. So do the operators of Kwame Nkrumah Academy, which the Chicago district ordered closed at the end of the school year.

Appeal plans are uncertain for two others: charter applicant Intrinsic, which sought to replicate its Level 1-plus campus with another citywide high school, and Urban Prep West, whose school was ordered closed. Neither Instrinsic nor Urban Prep West responded to requests for comment.

The state established the charter agency in 2011 to ensure quality in charter schools, and granted it the power to override local school boards’ rulings. Since then, charter school operators have regarded the state charter commission as a lifeline protecting them from hostile local school boards.

Its history with Chicago is contentious. The commission has overruled Chicago Public Schools  to approve opening two charter schools and to reopen four charters closed by the district — one of which later shut down. The state agency oversees and funds five charter schools now operating in Chicago.

Opponents chafe at the commission’s ability to override local decisions.

But circumstances have changed. The commission’s future is far from certain, meaning that charters rejected this month could have only a small window to win commission support before the administration, and possibly policies, change in Springfield.

Chicago tried to curb the commission’s authority by backing a state bill that would have stripped it of its right to reverse school district decisions. The bill passed, but Gov. Bruce Rauner vetoed it last spring, and the Illinois Senate failed to override the veto.

But incoming governor J.B. Pritzker has pledged to place a moratorium on charter school expansion. His position on the charter commission is unclear. He earlier told Chalkbeat that good charter schools are “worthy of support” but that adequate funding for district schools should come before “expanding the opportunity for people to start charters.”

Now legislators have introduced a package of bills to rein in charter schools. Among other things, they would cap charter school expansion in financially struggling districts like Chicago and bar for-profit companies from running charters.

Could Everest win approval in time? Charter operators have 30 days from a denial to file an appeal. Then the commission has 75 days to rule.

The school hasn’t yet filed an appeal. But Michael Rogers, the founder of Moving Everest, said he isn’t ready to give up on expanding his school’s mission.

He’s not deterred by Everest’s Level 2-plus rating, not a stellar rank, from Chicago Public Schools.

He said that the school offers a unique learning environment. It also provides for its students in other ways, including offering dental and eye care.

“How do we interrupt the cycle of children growing up in this neighborhood who have a challenging instructional environment?” Rogers asked, adding he will tell the commission about the importance of investing in a struggling community.

In Austin, one of the city’s most under-invested neighborhoods, the large gray-and-green buildings that house Moving Everest school and its partner after-school “Christ-centered” program, By The Hand, stand our starkly against the nearby empty lots, run-down strip malls, and train tracks.

“We are thankful that the charter commission lives on, at least for the time being,” Rogers said. “We do believe that we have a strong school academically, financially. Our model is such that the community has spoken very loudly about or school.”