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Transforming Low-Performing Schools in Memphis

Achievement School District cultivates talented leaders to improve struggling schools

Bobby White graduated from Frayser High School in Memphis in 1990. Last fall, he came back — not just as an alumnus, but as the school’s leader. 

In the time since White’s graduation, the school had become “chaotic” and the students’ achievement was suffering. The school was in the bottom 5% of schools in the state of Tennessee. It wasn’t alone: 12 of the 14 schools in the neighborhood were in the bottom 5% of schools statewide.

“There needed to be a lightning bolt to kind of shock the school into a new state of thinking,” White said. 

Because of its low performance, the school (now renamed Martin Luther King, Jr. Prep) had been designated as part of the Achievement School District — a special district created in Tennessee to dramatically improve the bottom 5% of the state’s schools. 

“Every kid, regardless of where they live, regardless of their community, regardless of how much money their parents have, regardless of their race or the ZIP code, they deserve to go to a great school," explained Chris Barbic, the founding superintendent of Tennessee's Achievement School District (ASD). "That's what we're trying to do: create a great school in every neighborhood in Memphis." 

Cultivating talented leaders is one of the main ways the ASD transforms school cultures and results. 

“I think Bobby's a great example of someone who was a principal in Memphis City Schools and has been put in a position now where he's got an opportunity to lead more than just a school, but build an organization in Frayser,” Barbic said. “Bobby's a special guy, but there are other leaders like him here. This isn't about importing a bunch of talent to Memphis. I think step one is finding great leaders that are here and giving them a runway and a pathway to be able to expand their leadership and expand their impact.”

Community leaders estimate that in the next five years, Memphis charter schools, ASD schools, and iZone schools will need to hire at least 3,000 new teachers and 130 new principals. Plans are in place in Memphis to attract and develop more than half of the needed talent.