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Memphis Makes the Nation’s Most Ambitious Effort to Fix Failed Schools
By John Buntin
The tension around the conference table was palpable.
Principals and educators from half a dozen schools in the north Memphis neighborhood of Frayser were meeting a week before the start of the 2014-2015 school year. Sitting at the head of the table was Bobby White, the co-principal of Frayser High School. For the past year, the group had been convening as part of a federally funded effort to rejuvenate the neighborhood, an enclave of 50,000 residents, almost all of them African-American, that has long been one of state’s poorest. The group around the table was supposed to be working on the education component of the plan. So far, there had been more talk than work. The purpose of today’s meeting, said White, was to develop an action agenda. “We’ve been meeting for almost a year,” he noted. “It’s time for us to stop talking and start acting.”
But when Bob Nardo, the sole white principal in the room, proposed the group set a big goal involving the whole neighborhood, Stephanie Love, a Frayser resident who was running for the Shelby County Board of Education, said she didn’t think that was realistic. There was, she said, a trust issue that had be acknowledged, an elephant in the room that no one wanted to talk about. The problem, she said, was the state Achievement School District (ASD). “Shelby County Schools is scared of what ASD is going to do. ASD is scared to say, ‘OK, we may not be what we need to be.’”
Indeed, Tennessee’s Achievement School District is at the heart of just about every conversation on improving education in Memphis right now. That’s because in recent years, public schools in Memphis have answered to one of two masters. One is the Shelby County school board; the other is the state ASD, which has the statutory right to take over schools whose test scores place them in the bottom 5 percent of performers statewide. It exercised that right in Memphis, where the state now runs or oversees 22 schools. Twelve of Frayser’s 14 public schools, including Frayser High School, fell into that bottom 5 percent. As a result, most of the people at the table, including White, report to the ASD. Most, but not all.
Sitting to White’s left was Kimberly Adams, the principal of Westside Elementary School. Her school reports to Shelby County, and while she appreciated the help that the group around the table had given her in the past (notably in retaining her school’s pre-K program), she worried about ASD encroachment. That’s why, when one of the participants suggested that the group around the table could collaborate on a brochure that would inform neighborhood parents of their educational options, Adams objected. She didn’t want nearby ASD schools picking off her students and threatening her school’s well-being. “I want my kids to be with me,” she said. “I want to make sure our doors stay open, our teachers stay employed, and my teachers get educated by teachers that I know are qualified to educate them in our district in this neighborhood and who understand what our kids are going through.”
“I know that my teachers can do that,” she said pointedly. As for the ASD, well, that was a different story.
“I appreciate your willingness to say what other people are thinking,” said Nardo, of her challenge to the ASD. As the meeting broke up, it became clear that there would be no approval of action the group could take -- not even on a brochure.
Welcome to the skirmishes on the front line of what may be the nation’s most significant experiment in taking over low-performance public schools. Tennessee’s Achievement School District is a story Governing is covering with a level of ambition suitable to its subject. Over the course of the coming school year, we’ll be following state and local leaders, parents and children, teachers and school administrators, social workers and police officers, community activists and politicians, through what is shaping up to be education reform’s most critical year. We hope to move beyond the policy briefs and backgrounders that so often marshal facts behind an opinion that is already firmly held. Instead, we will explore ambiguities and reframe questions as we follow the implementation of a state policy that was crafted to make a difference in its citizen’s lives, particularly those who live in poor, urban neighborhoods.
The stakes could not be higher. At issue is nothing less than one of the country’s most pressing questions: In a nation where Democrats and Republicans alike say they want to provide “equal opportunity,” can failing schools be transformed into successful schools in short order and on a large scale? If not, have the nostrums of the education reform movement distracted politicians, public officials and the public from the real challenge -- the problems of poverty, segregation, crime and family structure?
The practice of states taking over struggling urban schools isn’t new. New Jersey moved first, in 1989; Kentucky followed its example the following year. During the mid-1990s, states seized control of urban school districts more than a dozen times, including high-profile interventions in Baltimore, Chicago and Cleveland.
State takeovers got a further boost in 2001 with the passage of the No Child Left Behind Act, which directed states to take action against school districts that failed to make “adequate yearly progress” for three years in a row. Despite such provisions, however, only 3 percent of schools designated as failing were actually subjected to state takeovers, according to a study by the nonpartisan Rand Corporation. When states did act, they often did little more than replace teachers and bring in a new principal. One percent of “failing” schools underwent a deeper change -- they were converted to charter school status. But for the most part, the scope of changes made by states was fairly limited.
Then came Hurricane Katrina. In 2005, the Category 3 hurricane swept through New Orleans, devastating the city as well as its school system. The state of Louisiana stepped in and placed the city’s schools under the supervision of the Recovery School District (RSD). The RSD transformed all of New Orleans’ public schools into charter schools, giving them the kind of autonomy (to hire and fire staff, manage budgets and select curricula) that education reformers had long clamored for. During the RSD’s first year, only 23 percent of students tested proficient or above in English and math. Five years later, fully half of students did -- even though the share of students that qualified for free federal meals, a common indicator of poverty, had increased.
New Orleans’ RSD and its results served as a powerful inspiration to a cadre of education reformers. Several states -- Michigan and Virginia, among them -- created state turnaround districts that were inspired by the RSD. None, however, went as far as Tennessee.
In 2009, President Obama announced plans to provide funds for education reform as part of the stimulus package. States could compete for grants by enacting comprehensive education reforms. The competition was dubbed “Race to the Top.” States were scored by how completely they adopted a variety of measures favored by the administration and Secretary of Education Arne Duncan. Among those measures were loosening restrictions on the growth of charter schools, tying teacher evaluations to student achievement scores, adopting the Common Core (what students should know at the end of each grade) and addressing the lowest performing 5 percent of schools. Duncan placed particular emphasis on the final measure. “For a turnaround to succeed,” he declared at the unveiling of Race to the Top, “you have to change the school culture. We want transformation, not tinkering.”
Tennessee and its governor at the time, Democrat Phil Bredesen, decided to step up to the challenge. To distinguish its Race to the Top application, the Volunteer State proposed to create a state school district, the Achievement School District, that would have the authority to take over the bottom 5 percent of schools, as measured by statewide assessment tests.
Tennessee won one of the largest Race to the Top grants: $500 million, to be spent over four years. The task of implementing it fell to Bredesen’s successor, Republican Bill Haslam. Haslam embraced the challenge. To head the state education department, he hired one of the stars of the education reform movement, Kevin Huffman, a Teach for America alumnus and executive. To run the ASD, Huffman went after another education reform luminary, Chris Barbic, the founder of the acclaimed YES Prep network of charter schools in Houston. Barbic soon set a bold goal for the ASD. In five years’ time, it would move the bottom 5 percent of schools as measured by student achievement scores into the top quarter. The message was clear: Sweeping education reform in Tennessee was on.
This is Barbic’s third year as the head of the Achievement School District. Today, the ASD runs or oversees 23 schools. All but one are located in Memphis, in poor, predominantly African-American neighborhoods such as Frayser. To date, the ASD has shown little evidence of dramatic improvements. Most of the schools the ASD took over began with low levels of proficiency in reading and math. Although the ASD has made some improvements in raising the math proficiency of African-American students, English/language arts proficiency has barely moved. This is the year, Barbic acknowledges, when the dial has to jump.
Nowhere is the challenge more acute than at Frayser High School. To lead the turnaround effort there, Barbic hasn’t hired one of the prestigious national charter school operators, such as the Knowledge is Power Program or KIPP. Instead, he’s turned to Bobby White. A year ago, White’s charter organization, Frayser Community Schools, got the go-ahead to take over Frayser High School, beginning in the 2014-2015 school year. It is the group’s first and only school. Frayser High, says Barbic, “is probably the toughest turnaround job in Tennessee.”
Despite the broad policy implications of Tennessee’s attempt to overhaul its failed public schools, this is also a very personal story. It began more than a decade ago, in a barrio in Houston’s Second Ward. That is where Barbic first developed the turnaround playbook that he is now attempting to apply to Tennessee.
Barbic, a 42-year-old with glasses, a shaved head and an intense but amiable manner, didn’t set out to be an educator. As an undergraduate at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, he majored in English and human development. He considered a stint in the Peace Corps but decided to apply to Teach for America instead. His application was accepted and Barbic was assigned to The Rusk School, an elementary school on the east side of Houston.
Rusk’s demographics were challenging. Half of the student body were the children of Latino immigrants, most of whom had received, at best, an elementary school education. The other half were African-American children living in the nearby Star of Hope Mission, a homeless shelter. The year before Barbic arrived, the state of Texas identified Rusk as its worst performing school. The state’s response had been to replace its principal and most of its teachers. Barbic and another Teach for America member were assigned to teach sixth-grade reading, with very little guidance on how to do it. “The principal gave us autonomy to do things the way we wanted, to structure the class the way we wanted, run the schedule the way we wanted,” says Barbic. It took him some time to figure out how to control the classroom and even longer to become an effective teacher -- “the kids came with huge challenges,” he says -- but Barbic thrived on the combination of responsibility and autonomy.
“Looking back, having a principal who says, ‘Hey, I trust you. I’m going to hold you accountable for results, but you do it the way you want,’ informed a lot of my initial thinking on giving power to the people closest to the kids,” he says. By the end of his first year, Barbic knew he would make his career in education. As he gained competence and experience, he also became concerned about what happened to his students after they left Rusk and moved on to the local middle school. Many of them dropped by Rusk to tell Barbic how awful their middle school was. So in 1998 Barbic applied for and won a charter from the state to open a small middle and high school on an empty parking lot. He called it the YES College Preparatory School.
To say that YES Prep was successful would be an understatement. In its second year, operating out of modular units, YES Prep was designated as the top performing high school in the state. The following year, its first class of seniors graduated. Every student was accepted to a four-year college or university; 86 percent were the first member of their families to go to college. By 2003, YES Prep was adding campuses across Houston and amassing accolades. During YES’s first eight years, every single high school senior was accepted into a four-year college.
In 2012, the year after Barbic’s departure, the Edythe and Eli Broad Foundation named YES Prep Public Schools the most outstanding charter school operator in the nation. Remarkably, its closest competitor may have been the charter school network founded by Barbic’s Teach for America roommates -- KIPP, which operates 141 schools and serves more than 50,000 students nationwide.
For Barbic, the experience of establishing and building YES provided a crash course in management, leadership and systems design. In time he developed a theory about what makes turnarounds work. “It’s the school leader. It’s teacher talent. It’s a common vision. It’s everyone rallied around that vision, and then it’s the support and the systems to make the vision a reality,” he says. “It’s giving people the freedom to make the decisions that matter most, giving the ones that are closest to kids resources and holding them accountable.”
Barbic’s record made him a hot commodity in the education reform world. Soon after Gov. Haslam was sworn into office in early 2011, a headhunting firm working for the state contacted him about the position of superintendent of the ASD. “I said, ‘I’m not going to talk to anybody until I know who the commissioner is,’” Barbic recalls.
When Haslam announced that the state education commissioner would be Kevin Huffman, Barbic was sold. Huffman had been a Teach for America volunteer in Houston before going back to law school and then returning to the group as its executive. The fact that Huffman was taking a leadership role in Tennessee, a state that had won one of the biggest Race to the Top awards, virtually guaranteed that the Volunteer State would be at the leading edge of education reform.
In April 2011, Barbic moved to Nashville. He began building a team and crunching numbers to identify which of the state’s schools fell into the bottom 5 percent. Most were in Memphis. One neighborhood in Memphis in particular stood out: Frayser.
Frayser was first settled by Italian immigrants in the 1820s. After the Second World War, what had previously been a hamlet in the gentle hills of north Memphis had become a fast-growing blue-collar neighborhood of 50,000 residents. Factories stretched along Taylor Avenue, just a few blocks east of the Mississippi River. Companies such as Firestone, International Harvester, Ford and Kimberly-Clark offered thousands of jobs to men in the area, mainly white men. In 1949, Frayser High School, a sprawling three-story, Art Deco structure, was built. By the 1960s, Frayser and its plentiful jobs had drawn a handful of African-American families, among them the parents of Bobby White.
White’s father had been a musician. Although White was born in Memphis, the family moved to Los Angeles when he was 4 years old. White’s father had some success there -- he played with Stevie Wonder on his first album. But in 1981 the family moved back to Memphis, and White’s father took a job in Frayser with Ford. White went to elementary and middle school there, but by then Frayser’s identity was changing. The big factories lining Taylor Avenue were shutting down. White families moved further out; black families began to move in, drawn to the ranch houses sheltered by big mature trees and to affordable apartments in the two- or three-story apartment units that dotted the landscape.
When White matriculated at Frayser High in 1986, it was still predominantly white, but there was a sense that things were going wrong. White was a bright student. A teacher pulled his father aside to suggest that Frayser High “was not the school for your son.” But White lived in the neighborhood and his father wanted him to walk to school, so to Frayser High he went. Soon thereafter, things got much worse in the neighborhood. During the 1990s, Memphis began demolishing its public housing units. Those uprooted residents took their Section 8 housing vouchers and looked for places where they could afford an apartment. For many families, the search led to Frayser.
As the Frayser community shifted from being home to blue-collar workers to housing poor Section 8 recipients, its per-person income plummeted. In 1970, median income in Frayser had been 10 percent higher than the metro Memphis average. By 2010, the average family was earning $11,850 a year, placing half the area’s residents below the federal poverty line. Crime has surged. Three of Memphis’s five most dangerous “hot spots” are located in Frayser, as are the Vice Lords and other gangs. The feel of the neighborhood has also changed in more subtly destructive ways. People “move here, they have their voucher, they pay their rent, [but] because the schools are so poor, they don’t want to stay,” White says. Once the family starts doing better, they move out, he notes, “so you’re never able to create stability, where you begin to build a type of pride up that you would have in a community.”
Barbic was not deterred by Frayser’s challenges. He’d spent his career working in an environment of the sort that critics of education reform said made it impossible for students to learn. His experience taught him that they could. “Any kid, regardless of where they come from, can go to college if they’re given access to the right opportunities and resources,” he says. “It’s just that simple.”
Barbic’s first impulse was to bring the best charter school operators he could to Tennessee. This reflected his belief that the traditional school board/superintendent governance mode was broken -- too big and clunky to help schools get better faster. However, following the path of New Orleans and moving to an all charter system wasn’t feasible, for a number of reasons. Many Memphis residents, particularly in African-American neighborhoods, were deeply skeptical of charter schools. African-American parents frequently note that “charter schools” are a prescription most frequently written for their children, not the children in wealthy white neighborhoods whose kids tend to attend traditional public schools.
There was another reason not to rely entirely on charter schools: It would have taken too long. Tennessee was already off to a slow start with Race to the Top implementation. Moreover, the U.S. Department of Education made it clear that it wanted to see the ASD running at least some schools directly. Frayser was an obvious place to start. As a result, Barbic held one of his first forums about the ASD in Memphis at Frayser High School.
A small number of concerned parents and educators came out, among them White, who was then the principal of Westside Middle School in Frayser. When he became principal, the school’s proficiency was in the single digits -- close to 1 and 2 percent. By 2011, under White’s guidance, proficiency levels had risen into the mid-20s. It was a dramatic improvement, but Westside was still in the lowest 5 percent of performers by student test score. White was dismayed to learn that the ASD planned to take over his school. So when the principal of Frayser High asked him to come to Barbic’s forum meeting, White readily agreed. He arrived as a skeptic, if not a critic. He never expected that he would soon emerge as the linchpin of Barbic’s plans for the neighborhood.
White, age 42, was a fierce partisan of Frayser. He knew the challenges it presented. He’d grown up there after all, dropped out of college, felt the pull of the streets and at his lowest point found himself living in a homeless shelter with a profoundly deaf daughter at the age of 19. But he’d also gotten through it, finishing his degree and landing a good job at the General Services Administration. Then he’d gone back to teach. It had been a hard transition and there were days he thought seriously of quitting. But eventually he realized that his job wasn’t just to teach lessons; it also was to make connections and build relationships. “There’s value in everyone,” says White. “Celebrate who they are, celebrate their parents, celebrate where they come from and then build on it.”
At the forum in Frayser High’s auditorium, White made some remarks and ended up sitting near Barbic. The two men talked and the following day, Barbic called White to follow up. Barbic explained what the ASD hoped to do about Frayser’s plight. “He totally got it at once,” recalls Barbic.
White offered Barbic something he needed -- local knowledge and local credibility. So Barbic reached out. “Come take a trip with me,” he told White. “I want you to see something.” That something was YES Prep’s “Signing Day.” The event took place at the 18,000-seat Toyota Center in downtown Houston. “There was nothing there but black and brown students” up on the stage, recalls White. Instead of the principal calling names, each student walked up and said his name, his graduation year and then, pulling out a hat and putting it on, announced what college he would be going to. The announcements went on and on. Every single one of YES Prep’s 500 students was headed to college.
White recalls Barbic leaning over and saying, “We can do this in Memphis, better yet, we can do it Frayser. Are you in?” On offer was a job with the ASD.
“Hell yeah, I’m in, man, are you kidding?” White replied. “I’m crying like a little baby right there.”
The hopeful feelings didn’t last. Joining the ASD meant leaving the Memphis city school system, which was in the midst of a tumultuous merger with Shelby County Schools. Not only did White have to give up things like seniority and union representation, he also had to give up many of his friends. “I have people who don’t speak to me at the grocery store anymore,” says White. “I’ve become the enemy. Chris will get mad at me for saying it, but at the end of the day, people are saying, ‘You’ve been this champion for your people. You’ve been a grassroots leader, and now, all of the sudden, you’re with the white folks now.’ It hurt.”
One of the rumors sweeping through Frayser the summer before the 2014-2015 school year was that White was a white man from California who was coming in to take over a school whose student body was entirely African-American.
Things were not going particularly well for the ASD either. One of the most serious early problems occurred in the Binghampton section of Memphis. In 2012, the ASD and Shelby County Schools announced that in the fall Lester Elementary School would be converted to a charter school by Cornerstone Preparatory School. But when students arrived at the new school, they found that the previous, predominantly African-American staff of teachers was gone. Instead, they found a cadre of teachers that was young and predominantly white. Efforts to impose structure chafed. At a December meeting, one girl told the assembled parents that her teacher refused to let her use the restroom or get her fresh clothes when she wet her pants. The Commercial Appeal newspaper broke the story, igniting a firestorm of criticism. (A subsequent audit found no evidence of abuse.)
White grasped the problem. “There are some great things that Teach for America and brand-new teachers from the Memphis Teachers Residency bring to the table, some wonderful things, but the one thing that most of them lack is cultural competency,” White says. “Structure, systems and processes without cultural competencies and building relationships -- it turns into slavery. That’s what it can feel like.”
It was precisely that kind of nuanced understanding of how to interact with kids that made White valuable to the ASD. But White didn’t like being a district-level administrator. He missed hands-on turnaround work. Barbic suggested another way forward. Form a charter management organization, get the qualifications to operate charter schools and come to the ASD with a charter request. The achievement district has the power to charter schools for 10 years. If White could show what he could do with a school like Frayser High, Barbic told him, then White and his charter school group might be able to open other charter schools as well. It was an enticing prospect.
Community suspicions of charter schools were never going away, says White, but neither were charter schools and education reform. The smart thing to do, he says, was to “take advantage of the opportunity, as opposed to shunning it.” As he saw the challenge, Frayser High could “have someone who’s from here, who understands people, who understands the culture,” and who offers a team that is “excellent at what they do, and serve with pride, passion, intellect and professionalism on a daily basis.” Could that, White asks, “get students where they need to be? We won’t know if we don’t try.”
So with Barbic’s help, White secured a fellowship in the Tennessee Charter Incubator, a yearlong training program, and formed Frayser Community Schools. Last fall, the ASD gave his group the responsibility for running Frayser High School.
There is just one catch. White and Clark have to turn around one of the state’s most troubled high schools. Most charter schools start small -- with a class or two. They carefully nurture a culture of respect, excellence and high expectations and then gradually add students so as not to dilute that culture. Frayser High would be something else entirely. It is a takeover of an existing school, an existing culture and a school zoned for students from one of Memphis’ poorest neighborhoods.
Barbic is giving the hardest turnaround job in the state to, arguably, the least experienced school operator. But, Barbic says, “This is a bet on Bobby."
*Correction: A previous version of this story named Bobby White as the co-principal of Frayser High School. He is the founder and CEO of Frayser Community Schools.