NASHVILLE — The man picked to steer Tennessee’s most troubled public schools says he’s eager to get on with the task.
Chris Barbic left the YES Prep Schools he founded in Houston to take the Tennessee education post, co-managing five of the worst-performing schools in Chattanooga and Memphis.
“If you had asked me a year ago if I thought the state running a school was a good idea, I’d have laughed,” Barbic told The Tennessean.
The schools include Howard School of Academics and Technology in Chattanooga as well as Frayser High School, Hamilton High School, Northside High School and Raleigh Egypt Middle School — all in Memphis.
Next year Barbic must decide whether to continue the co-management approach, working with the local school districts. He could opt, instead, to turn the schools into charter schools or have the state take them over entirely.
The 1992 Vanderbilt University graduate said the Houston program succeeded because the community bought into it. He said that must happen in Tennessee as well.
“At YES, the real focus is on the people,” said Barbic. “Basically, we were betting the farm on talent. A lot of great people did a lot of great work every day. That’s where it starts.”
He said he left the organization because Tennessee offered him a greater challenge.
The lessons he learned through forming the charter school system in Texas will be applied in Tennessee. One of them is being results oriented — making decisions informed by data and offering rewards for the best results.
In the YES program — which stands for Youth Engaged in Service — the students are focused on public service and must be accepted at a four-year college to earn their diploma.
Barbic founded the program in 1998 and remains on the board of directors. YES Prep has been chosen among the nation’s top 100 high schools for three years in the U.S. News & World Report rankings.
Barbic said he never seriously considered teaching until his junior year at Vanderbilt’s Peabody College.
“I was up late one night watching PBS and a show about Teach for America came on,” Barbic said. “The crew was following a group of teachers as they worked in an inner-city school. I thought it looked hard, challenging and cool.”
Barbic signed up with Teach for America and was assigned to Rusk Elementary School in Houston, which was the worst-performing school in Texas, he said.
He began Project YES at Rusk in 1995. It began with sixth-graders and Barbic got the school board to add two more grades.
“We bused in 300 parents to a school board meeting and petitioned them to let seventh and eighth grades stay at Rusk,” Barbic said. “The board said yes that night. Literally, you had a school that was considered the worst in the state go from that to having parents knocking down the door trying to get their kids in it.”
Now, he’s in a top-down situation and realizes there’s skepticism to overcome about state government’s ability to educate.
“The state is often seen as a big bureaucracy, basically a ‘did we fill out the right paperwork and check all the right boxes’ operation,” Barbic said. “We have to gain street cred if we’re going to do this well.”