Meet Tyler Barnett
Barnett came from humble beginnings and, like many people who have survived tumultuous experiences, he has found a purpose larger than himself.
When you first meet Tyler Barnett, you might see a resemblance to his doppelganger tv character Doogie Howser, aka Neil Patrick Harris; he certainly has Doogie’s wise-beyond-years and thoughtful presence. However, Barnett isn’t saving lives in surgery or juggling notoriety while being a teenager. Instead, he is working to ensure that every child in Alabama has access to a quality public education. Barnett is the Executive Director for New Schools for Alabama, a non-profit organization that supports the growth of excellent charter schools across the State of Alabama. When you first meet Tyler, you may notice a calm, soothing personality, but it doesn’t take long to hear the passion in his voice for the work he does to ensure that kids across the state get a great education regardless of where they live or their socioeconomic status.
Barnett came from humble beginnings and, like many people who have survived tumultuous experiences, he has found a purpose larger than himself. Raised in a trailer park community about 45 minutes outside of St. Louis, Barnett saw first-hand the effects of educational disparity. “I grew up in a rural refinery town and everybody’s dad either worked at the refinery and came home covered in black soot, worked as a farm hand, or had a farm of their own. There was very little expectation that anyone would go to college and, for that reason, very few kids did go to college,” he recalls. When Barnett was in 8th grade, his biological father was awarded custody of him and, as he would state, he “lucked up” and moved to the St. Louis side of the river with the opportunity to attend the best school district in the state. “They had the best sports teams, the best educational opportunities, and it was an incredibly safe community, where both my dad and older brother had attended,” he said. Barnett immediately noticed that he was academically behind, at least in part, he says, because his new district had much higher expectations. He quickly realized the juxtaposition of the haves and the have-nots, which ultimately led him on a journey toward educational equity.
“I just saw this clear distinction between two worlds where one has very little to zero expectations for kids—which creates this self-perpetuating cycle of poverty—while the other literally has white picket fences and high expectations. There, almost every kid went to college,” said Barnett. Little did he know that this realization would ultimately propel him to the work he does today.
" I love my job and I know that it’s creating a ripple effect that hopefully creates better educational experiences for kids who otherwise wouldn’t have them."
The journey to this work…
As a husband and father of two pre-school aged girls, Barnett feels it important he model for his kids what it means to do something you love while also helping others. “It’s really important to model for kids that we, as adults, can just lead joyful lives where we are doing things that are meaningful to the rest of the world, while also pursuing our own dreams,” he noted. “After going into finance and hating it (and not being good at it), I came to the realization that I wanted my daughters to have an educational experience where they were encouraged to dream big and then zealously pursue those dreams. I feel like it’s incumbent on me to set an example for them, so every day I come to work I try to model that – I love my job and I know that it’s creating a ripple effect that hopefully creates better educational experiences for kids who otherwise wouldn’t have them.” Ultimately, he hopes that the work he does today will open similar life opportunities for kids throughout Alabama, giving them the tools they need to pursue their own big dreams.
Barnett began his career in education as a teacher with Teach for America (TFA), a national organization that finds and nurtures leaders to commit to at least two years teaching in public schools in low-income communities. “My oldest brother had done TFA, and I met his kids while he was teaching in the Bronx and could see how they loved him and how impactful it was on his life. So, in 2008 I joined TFA in Memphis and that was the experience that really propelled me down this career path forever.” Barnett remembered an instance, in particular, that challenged him to seek out ways in which he could most affect change in education. “Memphis used to track the number of violent infractions and publish it in the local paper every quarter and my school was always at the top of the list. We were at the crossroads of four gang territories, and [the school] just wasn’t a place where kids needed to be.” Among several violent incidents he witnessed, Barnett tells a story of a brawl during gang initiation that involved a student being pushed through a second-story window, a fire alarm being pulled, and a melee of nearly 300 students subsequently breaking out in the quad. That incident, he says, resulted in helicopters flying overhead and a massive police presence showing up to resolve the conflict.
“The school just wasn’t a place for kids to be and I wanted to do something different. Although my classroom was a safe place for kids, I recognized that I did not have the power to make broader change throughout the school. I wanted to do something beyond the four walls of my classroom to make an impact, and I felt I could only do that by getting into school administration or education policy.”
Barnett eventually left the classroom and got into policy, earning a law degree and working for two departments of education, a charter school support organization, and an education policy thinktank before starting New Schools for Alabama. “There is always this internal conflict telling me that to make broader change, I have to get further outside the classroom; but the further outside the classroom I get, the less contact I have with students. So, there is always this moderate pull to get back to the classroom, but that would mean me leaving this work,” he said pensively.
What is New Schools for Alabama?
The mission of New Schools for Alabama (New Schools) is to support the growth of excellent charter schools to ensure that every child in Alabama has access to a quality public school education. Alabama is infamous for being dead last in a number of quality-of-life indicators, including educational outcomes, and we know that education has a direct impact on social and economic mobility. “At the end of the day,” Barnett says, “What we’re trying to do is be a piece of the puzzle to create more opportunities for kids to have better, more fulfilling lives in the state of Alabama and break the cycle of poverty, and education is the vehicle that we use to make that happen.”
To achieve its mission, New Schools for Alabama concentrates on four strategic pillars: new school development, technical assistance, community engagement, and policy advancement (See the 4 strategic pillars below).
When asked what he thought New Schools added to the educational landscape in Alabama, Barnett replied, “Well, I think first and foremost, what we're trying to do is really simple and that is to increase the number of tuition-free, high-quality seats that kids who need them have access to in the state. Secondly, we're trying to change the narrative and change the status quo in a way that's maybe bigger than just single schools, one at a time. Hopefully, we are influencing folks to potentially think outside the box to do school a little bit differently than the way it's been done in the past. We know that some families in Alabama have been mired in perpetually failing schools for generations. And we may have tried different programs or different approaches here and there, but I think the time is right for folks to consider scrapping the old model and trying something new. Unless there is a change agent like New Schools for Alabama in the state, I don't think that's going to happen.”
Barnett added, “Our primary focus is simply on materially increasing the number of high-quality public schools in the state. We’re on a trajectory now that shows that within five years we should easily have over 2,000 new, high-quality seats in the state by way of charter schools. So, it's exciting to think that about 2,000 kids every year will get access to excellent schools when they may have otherwise been zoned for underperforming schools.”
As one can clearly see, Barnett is extremely passionate about his work at New Schools for Alabama and its place in Alabama’s education landscape. He admitted that if he could, he would probably work 12 hours a day if he didn’t have a family that attracted him home. “There's just so much work that we have left to do and we're making such good progress that it's invigorating and demanding at the same time. And so, there's this constant attraction to the work but at the same time, you know, my release valve is spending time with my family, playing basketball and playing with our two Great Pyrenees dogs. I’m a girl dad in a house of women, and one of our dogs is female and the other male. The male dog is truly a man’s best friend, so he and I have to have our bro time at the creek every once in a while,” he joked.
To find out more about New Schools for Alabama, the current charter schools in the state, The School Founders Program, and the many things the organization is doing to ensure educational equity in Alabama, visit newschoolsforalabama.org.
New Schools for Alabama 4 Strategic Pillars
1. New School Development is a part of New Schools’ mission that is all about increasing the number of high-quality schools kids have access to in the state of Alabama on a tuition-free basis and it is accomplished in two different ways: (1) New Schools recruits the highest performing Charter Management Organizations (CMO’s) from out of state to come into Alabama to work alongside a community and replicate or adapt their proven and successful models in Alabama’s highest-needs areas; and (2) New Schools incubates promising local and regional talent and supports them as they grow their own high-quality charter schools within their own communities. “Our School Founders Program represents the preponderance of our New School Development work and is probably the best mechanism we have on the school development side of what we do. The Program is a year-long fellowship where fellows get access to in-depth high-quality application support, acquisition and finance of an adequate school facility, and much more,” Barnett explains. Fellows also get community engagement assistance, help with curriculum selection, alignment of instruction and assessment, and identifying potential leaders and talent for the school. The fellowship also includes a year-long administrative residency with a high performing CMO that helps them establish and replicate a proven vision and bring it back to their communities.
2. Technical Assistance includes the aforementioned support for potential leaders, but it is also extended to existing charter school operators. Current school leaders receive assistance in navigating regulatory requirements, submitting amendment requests to adapt their charter model as necessary, crafting sustainable budgets, and accessing grants from various entities, among other things.
Technical assistance is also provided to charter school authorizers and school districts with free training for every authorizer in the state by external providers who are high-quality charter school authorizer trainers. School districts that want to establish conversion charter schools can also receive assistance to help them ideate and come up with a vision that will work for them and their communities.
3. Community Engagement includes making sure that parents have access to quality information so that they can make the best choice for their kids based on their needs and their interests. The New Schools’ website has a schools map feature that allows parents to search to find their local school or their kid’s zoned school to review their school’s A through F report card, among other things. Community engagement assistance is also provided through a partnership with various community-based organizations to ensure that parents have advocacy training and can organize within their own communities, making sure they get access to the schools their kids need.
4. Policy Advancement is about ensuring that Alabama’s regulatory environment is conducive to the success of high-quality education. Barnett said, “We work with policymakers to make sure that our regulatory landscape doesn't hold back the growth of high-quality charter schools. For the past year and a half, this has been part of our work, and we are excited to think about all of the strides we can make in our state going forward.”