In his attempts at turning around Howard School of Academics and Technology, Chris Barbic won't turn the school upside-down - at least not yet.
Barbic recently started as the superintendent of Tennessee's Achievement School District, created in 2010 and made up of five of the state's lowest-performing schools - a list that includes Howard and four Memphis schools.
Barbic, who was in Chattanooga Friday to visit Howard, said he'll use this year to learn more about the five schools and make sure they've got adequate resources.
"We really need to understand what's been happening here," he said. "We want to make sure whatever we do is thoughtful."
Last year was supposed to have served as a planning year for the district, but Barbic, a Vanderbilt University graduate, wasn't hired until May and he started last month.
New legislation passed last spring allows Barbic three options with Achievement School District schools: He can co-manage the schools with their home districts, as he's currently doing; he can turn the schools into charter schools; or he can choose to completely take over the schools and staffs from their current districts.
In its current configuration, Barbic said the Hamilton County school system still has control over Howard's administration and teachers.
"The final word is Hamilton County," he said. "We can influence. We can recommend."
That could change once he has learned more about the school, he said, and the Achievement School District office will use its leverage of a potential state takeover if necessary. Barbic said he will put teachers, principals and other school leaders under the microscope to make sure all are high performing.
"I think there'll be some very specific conversations about people," he said.
Howard Principal Paul Smith said he doesn't see the state's involvement as threatening. In fact, he said the Achievement School District is a "golden opportunity" for Howard.
And if some staff members are let go in the next few years, Smith said the Howard community will remain informed throughout the entire process on why changes are being made.
"There will be no surprises," he said.
The external influences facing Howard students - such as poverty, crime and family problems - can't be ignored by educators, Barbic said, although they can't be used as excuses.
He said his office will work with parents and the community to explain any changes they make to Howard and its staff.
"As long as the change is thoughtful and rooted in results for kids," he said, "I feel like we've got the moral high ground."
Barbic has seen students beat the odds. He founded a chain of successful public charter schools in Houston - called YES Prep Schools for Youth Engaged in Service - that prepare low-income students for college and careers. His sixth- to 12th-grade schools require all students to gain admittance into a four-year college or university before graduating.
Barbic taught for six years in the Houston Independent School District under the Teach for America program before opening the first YES charter.
His move to a statewide office in Tennessee is a chance to see if the YES strategy, rooted in finding talented teachers, can work on a larger scale, he said.