This week I got the results back from a open records records request I made with the state of Tennessee’s Achievement School District. It’s taken a while for me to fully digest them. The Tennessee Achievement School District was created as one of the latest tools of the reform movement to destroy our public education system. They are in the midst of taking over a local middle school here in Nashville, and I wanted to get a behind-the-scenes look at exactly what their plans are, the research they’d done, and how they planned to turn around this so-called failing school. I expected to get reams of independent research, emails filled with pedagogy, and an examination of just how they would staff this new school. Since they were only taken over fifth grade, I thought maybe there would be some discussion on the impact that would have on the other grades. Surely somebody had begun preliminary talks on how to reach out to existing staff and begin that collaboration. Unfortunately there was none of that in the emails I got. Ninety days of emails instead resulted in ninety days of PR work. Here’s an example:
I hope this note finds you doing well and enjoying a wonderful holiday with friends and family. I am gearing up both personally and professionally for a terrific 2015 that I look forward to sharing with each of you.
To that end, I am writing to request a favor. There is something I’d like for you to share with as many people as possible. This week, I wrote an opinion piece for Nashville’s Tennessean newspaper that will run on Monday (it will likely be posted online tomorrow). While the piece is focused on education reform battles in Nashville, it contains some big ideas that are familiar to any of us who do this work. It speaks to our shared belief that kids in failing schools can do so much better—a belief not shared by many of our detractors.
We know that national anti-reform efforts are zeroing in on Tennessee’s education battles at an increasing pace (the NEA bussed teachers in from out of town to attend ASD-hosted parent meetings last month here in Nashville) and the ASD is becoming a target of their nationally coordinated efforts. This makes good sense. Some ASD-authorized charter schools earned over 10 point gains last year and are already proving what is possible when we set high expectations, support our kids in reaching them, and treat educators like professionals by giving them the autonomy to make decisions based on what’s best for their kids. Stopping us is critical for those who want to protect the status quo.
Like many of you, I get frustrated whenever there is an appearance that there is more opposition than support for positive change. As we know, parents want good schools for their kids. Period. Unfortunately, the colorful tactics of our detractors get more attention in the press than the voices of positive change. But we can help make these voices louder. And sharing an opinion piece is a major way to show support for what we believe.
An anti-ASD piece in the Tennessean was recently shared 550 times on Facebook because of a coordinated effort by our opposition. I think we can do better than that. And I hope you’ll help us. Please consider taking these three easy actions tomorrow when the link to the opinion piece goes live (I will send you the link by separate email tomorrow):
(1) Share the link on Facebook;
(2) Share the link on Twitter with the hashtag #WeBelieve2015; and
(3) Send a request from you (please do not forward this email) to your school teams, parents, colleagues and friends near and far requesting that they do the same.
Together, we are in this work because we absolutely believe our kids can reach their full potential when given access to a great education. We believe success should be unleashed from the ground up in schools, not mandated from a top-down bureaucracy. And personally, a large reason I am in this work is because I believe in YOU and your ability to bring about the changes our kids deserve.
Happy New Year!!!
Achievement School District
That’s the email on the subject that Mr. Barbic felt demanded his attention. Why he wouldn’t want an email that he wrote through official email shared is another question for another time, but imagine if a teacher or administrator used district email to send out a similar missive to enlist the aid of fellow staff members to support their views?
A common refrain from the ASD is that others spread rumors and half truths, yet rarely do they miss the opportunity to engage in such activity themselves. Take for example, the above accusation of NEA bussing in teachers from out of state. Technically the teachers were from out of state and they were bussed in, but they were bussed from Opryland Hotel where they were attending a conference. They wished to show support for their fellow teachers, many who would potentially be unemployed next year, and the NEA helped facilitate it. Barbic makes it seem as if the union initiated the action.
Meanwhile, he conveniently chooses to ignore the ASD’s attempt to rig attendance at the parent meetings at the two middle schools that were being considered for takeover by only inviting parents of incoming fifth graders and holding the meetings simultaneously, thus dismissing the effect the move will have on the entire community, not to mention children already enrolled and parents of young children who have begun mapping out their children’s educational path. In spite of this, at the meeting a focus was made of how LEAD was a community school. Unfortunately I guess they meant a community inside a community. A hand-picked community.
I find it disturbing as well that right in the midst of a tumultuous transformation of a neighborhood, Barbic prioritizes creating hash tags and organizing a colorful campaign to give the appearance that this move has more supporters than detractors. Even better is the call for action from the top down evoking the mantra that success is unleashed from the bottom up. You just can’t make this stuff up. But don’t think Barbic is a lone wolf howling in the night. Take a look at this from Chris Reynolds, CEO of LEAD Public Schools:
From: Chris Reynolds [mailto:firstname.lastname@example.org]
Sent: Monday, December 22, 2014 2:58 PM
To: Chris Barbic; Elliot Smalley
Subject: Fwd: Tennessean Op-Ed
See below from Greg Bailey our communications director.
We are considering a response to the frogge/speering op ed that would come from me, but I want to do this carefully as I do not want to get into a tit for tat – but we cannot sit idly by waiting for next years data to slam the door shut – we have to communicate now.
I’ll call you later, heading into a meeting.
Apparently these people are tracking Op-Ed pieces as diligently as student performance data. Does that “not sitting idly by” refer to serving students or countering bad PR? I should’t be surprised, as many of the Achievement School District’s staffers come from Teach for America, and their response to negative publicity has been well documented. There is no reason not to follow the same playbook when you have the same players. Yet another page out of the TFA playbook is the utilization of public figures to assist in the selling of the product, and as fellow blogger Peter Greene points out, don’t think for a second that a charter school is not a product. This is where Colombo used to say let’s look at exhibit A, or in this case C. Here’s an email from LEAD Public Schools founder Jeremy Kane. Mr. Kane very much would like to be the mayor of Nashville.
From: Jeremy Kane <email@example.com>
Subject: Re: ASD Info
Date: November 21, 2014 at 5:19:15 AM CST
To: Chris Reynolds <firstname.lastname@example.org>
Cc: Tucker Dwayne <email@example.com>
Thanks for the heads up. Congrats and good luck.
Both of those communities are not as organized as the others LEAD operates in and you are going to have to work hard to make connections.
I would start with the elected officials out there and then ask them who they see as community leaders.
There is a group called Madison Now that is active and is trying to grow. They are worth reaching out to.
Harold Love’s niece works at Neely’s Bend. She’s great and might be someone to reach out to early.
Other than that I would just do what we’ve always done and take your time, be humble, listen far more than you talk, and be clear about your vision.
Jeremy Kane is not an elected official, yet. As part of his platform for his mayoral run, I believe Mr. Kane has a plank supporting public schools. If the above is a sampling of the support that our neighborhood schools can expect, I’d say there is a little cause for concern. LEAD in the latest round of Charter applications to MNPS proposes taking over 4 existing middle schools. That suggests a pattern to me and as Mayor would Mr. Kane again be offering his consulting services? And let me point out again, what is the focus on? Education or Public Relations? Lest you are still unconvinced of the ASD’s priorities, let me share a piece of their internal guide to anticipated FAQ’s at parents meeting:
Even a perfunctory read-through of this form will tell you this is not a “Lets be transparent” piece. In fact, it’s a very calculated attempt by the ASD to shape and communicate the narrative that they want the public to buy into. It is a narrative that even an uninformed reader can see is dishonest at best. Do they really expect us to believe that an organization that focuses so much on its critics and is populated by former TFA corps members, where money is always a central part of the equation, doesn’t know the exact figure of its donations? Come now, how stupid do you think we are? Are you detecting a pattern yet? Let me share one more exchange. This is from Barbic to Alan Coverstone, the head of the Office of Innovation for Metro Nashville Public Schools:
From: Chris Barbic
Sent: Friday, December 12, 2014 12:18 PM
To: Alan Coverstone – MNPS; Elliot Smalley
Subject: Rationale for Neely’s Bend Decision
Per our conversation last night, am sending this over for your staff meeting this afternoon . . .
Why Neely’s Bend?
· Neely’s Bend has a lower 3-year success rate – we want to make sure we are serving the students in the school with the higher need
· During our door-knocking efforts, we had a more positive and open response from Neely’s Bend parents
· While the actual parent meeting was not as helpful as were hoping it would be, the individual conversations afterwards were helpful and many of the parents we spoke with were positive and excited about LEAD’s program
· Over 40% of the parents who gave us feedback forms at the Neely’s Bend meeting responded positively
· LEAD has developed a strong track record serving ELL students at both Cameron and their Southeast Campus. Neely’s Bend has a larger ELL population (14.4% vs. 6.7% at Madison) and we believe LEAD’s program better matches with the demographics at Neely’s Bend and will do a great job serving the growing ELL population.
My parents always taught that anything that started with dishonesty always kept dishonesty at its root. Barbic claims that over 40% of the parents who returned feedback forms at Neely’s Bend responded positively. Well since I have copies of those forms through the open records request, I can say unequivocally, that is not true. Even if you count the parents who didn’t write, “Go home ASD” or “Stay out of our Neighborhood” on their forms as positive, it still doesn’t add up to over 40%. Interestingly enough, the majority of what can be sort of described as positive remarks came from Hispanic parents. I say it’s interesting because I was at the Neely’s Bend meeting and there were inadequate translation services provided. Initially critics of the ASD were not translated until it was brought to the public’s attention. A suspicious person might wonder how much coaching these parents received on their forms. Barbic did tell me, that these were not the only responses they received. They received more through door-to-door meetings.
Let’s talk more about that “door knocking” piece. My initial request asked for all parent response forms. When all I received were the ones from the meeting, I asked where were the forms from the door-to-door visits. The response was, the ASD never did any door knocking. So I politely asked whether Mr. Barbic was misquoted in local press reports. The next response was that LEAD as an ASD entity did the door knocking. Again, I politely asked why then were those parent cards not included, since I did ask for all documents, and if LEAD was acting as an agent of the ASD, those parent cards should have been turned over as well. Well, apparently I misunderstood. I was told that because LEAD was acting as a separate public agent and since they were subject to the same public records rules as the ASD, I should petition them. Which I’ve done but haven’t heard a response in over a week. I sure hope someone is not furtively writing in a basement somewhere at ASD headquarters.
I’d like to share one last email with you. Below is an email sent by a 6th grader at Neely’s Bend. It’s one that was quickly dismissed by the ASD. Try as I might, I couldn’t find any direct response to this child but then again she wasn’t an elected official or media person. Just a child who likes their school. Keep in mind as well that Dr. Springer, the principal at Neely’s Bend, had only been at Neely’s Bend a short period of time and is now no longer with the school. Here’s what the 6th grader has to say:
I am sorry I could not be here tonight, I really wanted to represent my school. I love Neely’s Bend Middle Prep, it is a great school. I feel that it is a school that future students should have the opportunity to experience. We are the Beavers, and beavers work as a community. Beavers help support the community in many different ways. They build upon and improve the environment for their peers. They work together as a team. And they are dependent on each other. Our teachers are a big a part of our family and lives. They work with us, and we trust them. I feel my voice should be heard. This is our future. I would like to see many other kids enjoy the fun learning and activities at this school. The teachers here have high expectations of each of us. They work their hardest to keep us interested in learning. They are very supportive. If it was not for these teachers I would not have overcome the obstacles that I have faced in the past. They have encouraged me to keep doing my very best, especially when I am struggling. They are patient when I am frustrated. They are comforting to us when we are faced with difficulties in life. Dr. Springer has helped us in many different ways. We were unsure of her changes at first, but now are understanding the changes are in our best interest. She also has high expectations of us, the same our teachers, and we respect her greatly. This is going to be a great year, and hopefully we will have many more. Go Beavers!
The truth is, our most challenged schools need additional resources and attention. However, it’s educational attention they need, not public relations attention. Mr. Barbic likes to say that 100% of the BEP funds follow the student. If this is true, then it begs the question, who’s paying for all this PR work and orchestration? Are we really paying Mr. Barbic over 200K a year to write Op-Ed pieces defending his personal vision of reform? Couldn’t the money spent on FAQ pieces be better directed towards instructional material for the children? Now that the Race to the Top money has been spent, it’s way past time for legislators to take a closer look at the Achievement School District and its mission. Especially in light of a recently proposed change in policy that would allow the ASD to start recruiting students. We need to know exactly what we are funding, a school district or Public Relations firm and what’s the end game?