Here’s how Sara Lewis recalls her first meeting with Chris Barbic, the superintendent brought to Tennessee in 2012 to lead a state takeover of struggling schools: “Let’s just say it wasn’t on the best of terms.”
Lewis, a former Memphis City Schools board member and education advocate, had already gained national media attention for pushing back against Barbic’s Achievement School District, saying that some schools in the district were not considering communities’ needs. When they met at a north Memphis high school, she raised those concerns in person.
But by last winter, Lewis was publicly proclaiming faith in Barbic’s efforts. He had responded promptly to her concerns—in one case calling a school leader late at night to address a parent’s problem. “You can take different paths to the same goal,” Lewis said in an interview. “He is a committed educator who cares.”
These days, Lewis said she meets with Barbic every six weeks. In between, she said, “we text.”
Lewis’s gradual change in opinion mirrors a broader shift in the relationship between the state-run district and some of the communities whose schools it has taken over. Now that the ASD is in its third year running schools, skepticism and occasional animosity have evolved into cautious collaboration as both the ASD and the communities realize that their fates are intertwined.
Nowhere is the change more evident than in Frayser, a North Memphis neighborhood of more than 40,000 where the ASD is running almost half of the local schools. There, some community leaders have accepted the ASD as a possible pathway to what they have increasingly desired: A way for Frayser’s needs to not get lost in a bigger system.
“The only way we win is that you guys win,” said Sonya Smith, the Frayser Neighborhood Council’s education chair, said in an interview. “We’re in it together.”
Frayser 2020 and the ASD
Frayser was an independent bedroom community until it was annexed by the city of Memphis in 1958. It still retains the lawns and single-family homes of its suburban past, but decades of economic stress and white flight have left a neighborhood marked by high levels of blight and low levels of employment.
In 2012, Frayser, along with Binghampton and six neighborhoods in other cities, was awarded a federal grant for neighborhood improvement. That grant created the neighborhood council, which created a “Frayser 2020” plan for neighborhood improvement focused on safety, employment, public perception, and education—areas that have challenged Frayser, and which the council believes are all related. (Sometimes very directly—the council found that all crime committed by teens in Frayser, for instance, takes place during the school day.)
In 2010, the Tennessee legislature created the ASD as part of a bid to win a federal Race to the Top Grant, which incentivized states to take assertive action to improve their bottom 5 percent of schools. The new ASD was tasked with improving those bottom 5 percent schools by taking them out of their local school district, but it had a lot of flexibility in what exactly it did with those schools afterward.
In 2012, the state created a “priority list” of schools that were eligible for takeover—and every school in Frayser except one was on it. The new district began a process to determine which schools it would run in 2012, and began running schools in 2012-13.
The ASD took over three schools in Frayser in 2012-13, and an additional two in 2013-14. Though most of the schools the ASD runs are charter schools, the five Frayser schools are directly run by the district as a sort of internal charter school network, known as the Achievement Schools.
All teachers who had worked at the schools before they became part of the ASD had to reapply for their jobs, and the schools received new logos, names, schedules and academic programs.
Chris Barbic, the superintendent of the ASD, said that he wanted to concentrate the ASD’s efforts directly running schools on one neighborhood. Frayser “popped off the map” because of its high numbers of low-performing schools, but also because there were a number of active community organizations, he said. (Barbic said in an interview that he wanted the ASD to run some schools directly to show that the people running the district were also actively involved in the school improvement work, but that the schools might be turned into an independent charter network in coming years, making the ASD an all-charter district.)
The idea of creating a system of schools separate from the larger district was percolating both through the ASD and its charter school approach and in the Memphis suburbs: Around the same time the ASD was created, the suburbs were planning to create their own local school districts to avoid being merged with a system that included the larger city. Those districts went into business this year.
“We really want a neighborhood school system that looks like what the municipalities have, so parents can have true buy-in to what’s going on,” said Smith, with the Frayser Neighborhood Council.
“The way we envisioned it is, if we were running a cluster of schools, all in Frayser, we’d be able to give the community what the Germantowns and Collierville wanted: A system separate from the large school structure that was very accessible to folks in the community,” said Barbic.
But getting buy-in in Frayser wasn’t simple. “When they came into our community, they knew nothing about our community,” said Stephanie Love, who will represent Frayser on the Shelby County school board starting this fall. They brought teachers and organizers in who knew nothing about our community.”
New Shelby County board member Stephanie Love at a meeting of the Frayser Exchange Club earlier this year.
Building a constituency
Three years into the ASD’s takeover, the five schools in Frayser are posting mixed results. The district’s overall reading scores actually dropped in the first year it ran schools. This year, some ASD schools reversed that decline in test scores: Frayser Achievement Elementary saw growth in both subjects. The district ran a ninth grade academy for one year that posted high results in reading and math. It also opened an alternative school called Pathways.
But turnover and challenges in have persisted in some schools. Principals at two of the Frayser schools that scored lower on state tests this year, Westside and Georgian Hills, were replaced midyear last year, which ASD leaders said should help the schools improve.
Ash Solar, the director of the Achievement Schools, said the plan to put all the schools on the right trajectory hinge on relationships with the community. “We reoriented our mission and vision to say, let’s build schools Frayser can be proud of 100 years from now, instead of just getting to the top 25 percent.”
The ASD’s efforts to work with the community have been abundant. Many of its schools, including those in Frayser, have hired “community engagement specialists.” The district—which does not have an elected board—has also created voluntary advisory boards to guide several parts of its operations.
Some of the efforts are more creative: The district has funded a group called the Junior Blight Patrol, for instance, aimed at juveniles returning from the justice system. ASD staff even played a recurring basketball game last school year with members of a community group run by Frayser pastor DeAndre Brown in which they vied for a trophy called the “Frayser Cup.”
Jeffrey Henig, a professor of education policy at Columbia University’s Teachers College, said that proponents of charter school and dramatic reforms like the ASD, have learned from experience in other cities that “they need a local constituency.”
“This isn’t just happening against a blank slate,” he said. “It’s happening against a history of racial tension and tension between community and outside forces that still affects how people interpret who they can trust and who they should not trust.”
Parent Sherrell Williams, whose daughters had attended two different ASD schools, said that her experience had been mixed: While one of the schools had been a welcoming environment, at the other, “[the school's principal] didn’t let the kids adjust to the new environment. She didn’t have any kind of compassion.”
Others question whether the new schools have been an improvement at all. Board member Love said that for the past two years, “the same things going on in Shelby County schools, they were going on in ASD schools too: Lack of parent involvement, the teacher not being able to teach because you have disruptive kids in classroom, teachers not being effective, principals not being effective, a perception of people because of their zip code—it was the same.”
The ASD’s Barbic has often framed the ASD’s relationship with the school district as collaborative rather than antagonistic. “We want all of the schools to be improving,” he said.
But Love said after her election that the biggest challenge facing Shelby County Schools is keeping schools out of the ASD.
She said that if some schools are not working, they should be held accountable. “If it’s not about education and uplifting our children, we don’t want y’all here. Experiments have gone on and at the end of the day, our children are not getting the education we deserve.”
Looking forward, Shep Wilbun, the director the Frayser 2020 plan, said the ASD represented an opportunity for a group of Frayser citizens who are “very interested in improving their neighborhood.”
He said that Frayser had often been overlooked by city and state systems, and that the ASD might offer a way for the community to exert more control. “We’re not pro-charter, necessarily, but we see it as an option for Frayser to have its own system of schools,” he said.
Wilbun suggested that each school in Frayser could eventually be turned into a charter that has a representative on the Frayser Neighborhood Council.
That would mean that even if the schools were removed from the jurisdiction of the ASD and returned to Shelby County Schools—which could happen in five or ten years—Frayser residents could maintain say over the schools.
This year, Frayser High School was converted to a charter school as part of the ASD. That means some Frayser students will attend ASD schools from kindergarten until high school. The school is being run by a new charter management group called Frayser Community Schools, founded by Bobby White, who is himself a Frayser graduate.
But the ASD isn’t the only player in Frayser. “We had charter schools, the ASD, Shelby County Schools, a Christian school, Catholic schools,” said the Neighborhood Council’s Smith. “And the community was saying, there’s really no continuity in education in Frayser.”
This year, Smith said, “We’re trying to get everybody to come to the table and be transparent and really talk about what strategies or techniques they’re using to help move education forward. We don’t want the the ASD or anybody else to come in, have three-to-five years to get it right, find out they got it wrong—and we find ourselves with the same problem.”
At the Achievement Schools in Frayser, Solar said, he was glad that the ASD is not adding more direct-run schools to the Achievement group this year.
“It’s taken us two years but I think we’ve learned a lot about who we are, who we want to be and what the needs are within our community.”
He said that the Achievement Schools were likely to look more similar to one another in coming years, as strategies that had worked well in some schools would be shared among others.
Different charter school operators may also take over additional schools in Frayser as part of the ASD. The ASD recently approved plans for a new Montessori-based charter school that aims to run an elementary school in coming years.
Meanwhile, parent Williams said that while both schools’ curriculum and teachers were different than what she’d been used to, what government body is running the school was less important to her than who the individuals were.
“I wasn’t really concerned whether they’re charter or Shelby County Schools,” she said. “Really, it just depends on the teacher.”