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Cover Story: Picking up the pieces of Atlanta Public Schools

Can new superintendent Meria Carstarphen save the troubled school system?

About two months ago, Meria Carstarphen introduced herself to dozens of Atlanta's top educators, politicians, and journalists at the Commerce Club for an Atlanta Press Club newsmaker luncheon. It was her first public appearance as the new superintendent of Atlanta Public Schools. "It's a little nerve–racking," she said.

At the meeting, the incoming superintendent laid out her sweeping vision for APS. She delved into how she planned to overhaul the public school system's culture, implement measures to ensure accountability, make transparent decisions, and treat all students equally, no matter their households' ZIP codes. She also gave Atlantans one major piece of advice: Let go of the past. Everyone knew she was referring to the notorious APS cheating scandal, although she didn't directly mention it.

"The past challenges can hold the system back if we don't start letting some of those things go," Carstarphen said in her speech. "It's not to forget that those things happened. It's not to ignore the problems. But it is to start putting it in its place to start shedding these things, stepping out of the past, and into a very, very bright future."

Carstarphen officially started work as the new head of APS on July 7. The superintendent takes the reins at a critical juncture for the dysfunctional 47,000-student public school system. APS has a 58.6 percent graduation rate, which puts it among the lowest-performing districts in a state with the nation's fifth-worst public education system. To bring about change, Carstarphen must drastically boost academic performance in a city with widespread inequality. Her most daunting task will be to mend the trust broken by the mammoth cheating scandal that duped parents, harmed students, and left a black eye on the school system.

The Alabama native, considered by many to be a rising star in the education world, has dramatically improved public school systems in Minnesota and Texas. Her supporters think she can save the city's beleaguered public education system. Her critics say she operates too independently and, at times, does so to the detriment of students. By all accounts, Atlanta presents the toughest challenge yet in Carstarphen's career.

Carstarphen, 44, characterizes her move to Atlanta as a homecoming of sorts. She grew up in a major battleground for the Voting Rights Movement and attended schools that were largely segregated even well into the '80s. The self-described "daughter of the Deep South" was born in Selma, Ala. Her upbringing emphasized the importance of public education from an early age.

"I went to school at a time in the South where they were still doing tracking," she says. "I was one of two black students in my class. You never saw your community in class with you. As you got older, for me that was fourth grade, you see those things. It drove me to want to address why we were having separate proms, why there weren't more black students in honors courses. It was a lot of seeing and recognizing in Selma those things that would determine what would happen to your future. ... I saw it make or break people's lives."

Carstarphen, who's been an educator for nearly two decades, majored in political science and Spanish at Tulane University. Although she taught Selma middle school students for four years after graduating, she's also worked as a journalist for National Geographic, Selma Times-Journal, Southern Living, and other publications.

Her focus shifted to education during an assignment to cover Catholic ministers in Venezuela. On her off days, she worked alongside nuns as a volunteer teacher in the shantytowns of Caracas. Upon her return, Carstarphen obtained several more education degrees, including an Ed.D. from Harvard University. Between 1999 and 2006, she moved around to five different education positions — a tendency some called "restless" — that allowed her to gain experience as a public school administrator in Columbus, Ohio, Kingsport, Tenn., and Washington, D.C.

In 2006, she landed her first superintendent gig in Saint Paul, Minn., a 42,000-student system that saw test scores on the rise yet struggled with a widening minority achievement gap. Carstarphen successfully pushed for a $180 million bond package, combatted racial inequality by restructuring school districts, and helped increase the number of kids enrolled in the system. But some ex-staffers criticized her management style for being unnecessarily confrontational. They said the achievement of goals came at the cost of disrespecting people within the organization. In an open letter to a local newspaper, one former employee claimed the superintendent's divisive tactics "rendered the administrative work environment toxic."

"She charges ahead so fast and so hard that she gets out 300 yards, turns around, and finds out nobody's there with her," says Bob Stockwell, an Atlanta-based consultant and founder of local education blog Financial Deconstruction. "She's a fast learner. But sometimes she doesn't build the level of support in the constituencies she needs to build to make sure that when she announces a decision, everybody's standing behind her, clapping."

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After three years, Carstarphen accepted the superintendent position with the Austin Independent School District. Some St. Paul educators were caught off guard by her departure given her limited time with the system. Overall, she received high marks from school board members for her work.

"Her legacy will be that she positioned us for the changes we need to make," St. Paul Board of Education Vice Chairwoman Elona Street-Stewart [http://www.startribune.com/local/stpaul/40345287.html|told the Star Tribune in 2009.
Between 2009 and 2014, Carstarphen guided AISD's 87,000-student system to record high school graduation, attendance, and college application rates (82.5, 95, 92 percent, respectively). To achieve those results, Carstarphen emphasized education initiatives that developed the "whole child," including the expansion of arts, health and wellness, and social emotional learning programs, instead of making testing the highest priority. The improvements happened while lawmakers cut $5.4 billion in public education funding from the state's two-year budget. Carstarphen managed a tight $950 million annual budget that provided funding for approximately 12,000 employee positions and more than 120 schools.

Despite the AISD's positive strides, some community members raised concerns over Carstarphen's lack of collaboration. The superintendent's opponents blasted her for making decisions without drumming up enough support among the district's diverse constituencies. In one pivotal matter, critics said her failure to rally supporters led to the rejection of more than $400 million in bonds that would have fully funded a master plan for the school system's facilities. Although voters approved two bond propositions totaling $490 million, the failed ballot measures marked the first time in 25 years that Austin voters rejected any kind of school bonds. Some opponents suggested that the failed referendum was a reflection on her work, including her lack of community engagement, as superintendent.

"People were tired of encountering her like a brick wall," Vincent Tovar, co-founder of public education advocacy group PRIDE of the Eastside, [http://www.austinchronicle.com/news/2013-12-13/aisd-carstarphen-on-the-hot-seat/|told the Austin Chronicle after Carstarphen's AISD departure. "Her legacy is, 'best practice doesn't matter, data doesn't matter, research doesn't matter, my opinion is what matters.'"
Carstarphen acknowledges that not everyone will agree with her decision-making given the wide-ranging interests of parents, activists, and elected officials involved in public schools. Regarding criticisms about her leadership style, she refers to her "extraordinary" track record in St. Paul and Austin as proof that her approach has helped all students — not just specific groups of children — receive a better education.

"There's hardly anyone in America, especially in urban school systems, where you're able to get results for students," she says. "I work every day for kids. If you're a 'me' kind of adult, you're going to have tension and conflict with me. I get it, I'm going to try to understand, but I'm going to bring it back to the question: How does this move the agenda forward for kids? Not just your kids; but black kids, poor kids, second language learners, special education kids."

Carstarphen's supporters and opponents disagree on most points, except for one: that APS' newest leader has undeniable charisma. The 44-year-old superintendent has a rare touch that can disarm both officials and students. Often wearing a black blazer and a pearl necklace, she can navigate effortlessly between formal education board presentations and selfie-filled school visits in a single day.

Atlanta's new superintendent steps in to lead a public school system that faces a litany of issues. Only three out of five APS students earn their high school diploma. Both high school graduation rates and Criterion-Referenced Competency Tests (CRCT) scores — two major indicators of academic performance — lag far below state averages. The system's teachers are educating children in a city with the widest income inequality gap in the country. Nearly one-third of APS students live in households that make less than $25,000 annually, while approximately 72 percent of kids — roughly 34,000 — qualify for free or reduced lunches.

Before she can address those issues, Carstarphen must confront the ghosts of APS' past. The school system is still reeling from the massive cheating scandal that shattered the public's trust in its classrooms. In 2011, state investigators reported that 178 principals and teachers falsified test scores at almost half of the system's schools, potentially affecting tens of thousands of students. Her earliest months on the job will likely be overshadowed by the final trials of educators, most notably ex-superintendent Beverly Hall. Jury selection starts on the first day of school. The momentous legal battle could drag on for months before a jury reaches a verdict.

Amid the high-profile court proceedings, Carstarphen will need to convince teachers, parents, and students that the public school system's darkest moments have passed. She's already committed to creating individual academic plans for students hurt by the cheating scandal. But she'll need to do a lot more to regain trust.

?<img src="https://media1.fdncms.com/atlanta/imager/out-of-the-ashes-few-schools-were-hit-har/u/original/11620993/1404933000-stackedschools320.jpg" alt="OUT OF THE ASHES: Few schools were hit harder by the cheating scandal than W. L. Parks Middle School (top) in Pittsburgh, where principal Christopher Waller falsified test scores, organized "erasure parties," and threatened potential whistle-blowers. At North Atlanta High School (bottom), the most expensive public school built in Georgia at $147 million, internal problems have dogged the Buckhead school and led to the firing and resignation of top administrators." title="OUT OF THE ASHES: Few schools were hit harder by the cheating scandal than W. L. Parks Middle School (top) in Pittsburgh, where principal Christopher Waller falsified test scores, organized "erasure parties," and threatened potential whistle-blowers. At North Atlanta High School (bottom), the most expensive public school built in Georgia at $147 million, internal problems have dogged the Buckhead school and led to the firing and resignation of top administrators." width="320" height="434" />

  • Joeff Davis (top) | Dustin Chambers
  • OUT OF THE ASHES: Few schools were hit harder by the cheating scandal than W. L. Parks Middle School (top) in Pittsburgh, where principal Christopher Waller falsified test scores, organized "erasure parties," and threatened potential whistle-blowers. At North Atlanta High School (bottom), the most expensive public school built in Georgia at $147 million, internal problems have dogged the Buckhead school and led to the firing and resignation of top administrators.

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"There's a lack of trust in APS' direction because of the cheating scandal and current administration," says Jarod Apperson, a Midtown resident and founder of local education blog Grading Atlanta. "She'll have to quickly send a signal that the scaffolding needed to improve APS is in place. If she shows some of that, she might be able to rebuild trust in the community."

Former APS Superintendent Erroll Davis, who retired in June, thinks Carstarphen's background will go a long way toward boosting APS student performance. For the past three years, he says he was required to "put out the fires" that jeopardized the school system following the cheating scandal. Because Davis doubled down on crisis management, he says some of his resources were shifted away from the needs of the children. He says many of those problems — a dysfunctional school board, the potential loss of accreditation, and inadequate transparency measures — no longer threaten APS. He says Carstarphen has a solid foundation for making inroads with educators, parents, and students.

"APS is a big battleship," Davis says. "Battleships turn slowly. It will take time. Good leaders can accelerate that. ... She'll have the opportunity to sell people on a longer-term turnaround."

During a yearlong superintendent search, Atlanta's nine education board members considered more than 450 applicants from 37 different states. After interviewing several candidates, the Austin superintendent impressed board members enough that they named her the sole finalist.

"You could feel this was someone who cared deeply about children, had urgency about the work, and experience in bringing about big-scale change," Atlanta Board of Education chair Courtney English says. "It wasn't just about remarkable results, but how she went about that."

Matt Westmoreland, a board member who reps many eastside neighborhoods, says Carstarphen has the energy and expertise needed to lead the school system. Carstarphen's ability to identify talent in potential school leaders, and understand how to support them, made her stand out to at-large board rep Cynthia Briscoe Brown.

"She understands what character traits are essential to being a good principal," Brown says. "A good principal can transform a school. But a great principal can transform a school quickly."

Not everyone felt Carstarphen was the right person for the job. Georgia Federation of Teachers President Verdaillia Turner has remained vocal in her opposition to the superintendent since first being mentioned as a contender for the position. She says the overall hiring process was "opaque." The teachers' rep thinks the new superintendent is nothing more than a political appointment from Atlanta's education board, which remains "hell-bent" on opening more charter schools and steering education investments toward for-profit educators.

"There's nothing special about this person," Turner says.

In April, Carstarphen signed a three-year, $1.13 million contract with a $2,000 monthly allowance to cover expenses. Her team was able to get a head start prior to her official July 7 start date due to an agreement that let Coca-Cola, Delta Air Lines, Georgia Power, and other undisclosed donors pay for approximately $400,000 in transition costs. The extra two months allowed her to hire staffers and study the school system's inner workings before taking office. The superintendent has already filled out many top cabinet positions with trusted employees that worked alongside her in Austin. She hired Pamela Hall, AISD's ex-human resources executive director, to oversee the same department in Atlanta. Former AISD chief performance officer Bill Caritj joined her staff in a brand-new accountability position to create safeguards that ensure data and testing integrity.

As Carstarphen solidifies her cabinet, she'll look to improve the quality of APS employees, refine the academic curriculum taught to students, and make internal operations more efficient. She wants to attract talented leaders ranging from principals to bus drivers, all who fit into her long-term APS strategy.

"Leadership is far broader than the superintendent and the school board," she says. "I wanted to see who the people are to retain, find ways to support them early on, and fill gaps in the leadership team."

In doing so, Carstarphen hopes to reverse disillusionment by empowering the system's employees. "Our biggest challenge may be the culture itself," she says. "To build hope in our organization we need people to feel like they're welcome, respected, and engaged in the school experience." The superintendent stresses her commitment to being accessible, providing more direct support, and offering greater autonomy to staffers.

"There's this culture that fears new ideas within Atlanta Public Schools," says Paul Benson, a parent with two kids at Perkerson Elementary School. "... There's also this culture that has existed for years where APS officials will only do something if someone screams loud enough. I don't know what the answer is, but hopefully Carstarphen brings in a good team that is transparent and creates a culture of growth and innovation. APS has so many old-school thinkers who don't think outside the box. She thinks outside the box."

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Apperson says the culture shift with current school system employees should be complemented by the recruitment of talented principals and teachers. "Right now, from all APS levels, there are a lot of people who do not do their function well," he says. "She's got to raise the bar."

Dawn Brockington-Shaw, a Cascade Heights parent with two children enrolled in the Benjamin E. Mays Cluster, says Carstarphen's earliest hiring decisions have prompted "grave concerns" with some southwest Atlanta residents. She says the superintendent has not followed through on early pledges for greater collaboration and transparency. Those failures were evident, Brockington-Shaw says, in the recent hires of 19 new principals, including three new school leaders in her children's APS cluster.

During the Mays Cluster hiring process, a group of parents and community members expressed their doubts about the applicants and wanted to start over with a new principal search. They made a formal request over the matter, but found APS staffers to be unresponsive to their concerns. When they finally heard back, they were informed that Atlanta's education board had already approved the principal candidates.

Carstarphen says the Mays Cluster hiring process had already started over from scratch one time before she became superintendent. Looking back, she says APS recruited the best candidates for the positions, adhered to a transparent recruitment process, and stopped people from "jackknifing" the hiring selection. "It is what it is," Carstarphen says. "Is it perfect? No. But we know we dramatically improved that process." Brockington-Shaw, who disagrees with Carstarphen's account, says the superintendent's response unfairly portrayed parents in a bad light instead of acknowledging what happened.

"We feel as though nothing has changed," Brockington-Shaw says. "Beverly Hall was painted as someone who was not transparent or collaborative. Based on our experience in the principal-hiring process for the Mays Cluster, Meria Carstarphen has also not been transparent or collaborative."

It's expected that Carstarphen will run a more efficient operation that spends less on administrative costs. Atlanta currently devotes $73.1 million, approximately 11 percent of its $658 million budget, to pay for central office and general administrative expenses. In contrast, AISD only spends an estimated 2.5 percent of its budget on central office costs. Substantial changes are likely to happen in a central office described by sources as a bloated, dysfunctional bureaucracy of more than 300 employees.

"You have a large group of people in the Downtown office who don't talk to each other," Stockwell says. "The people at the top have no idea what's happening at the bottom. You have objectives taken on that nobody understands how to go about accomplishing them. None of them know what the other person's doing. Part of the problem is not only the size, but the inability to respond to what's happening out in the school system. An administration is supposed to be there to support your key leaders, your principals. In fact, they do exactly the opposite."

Administrative belt-tightening comes with its own set of challenges and could lead to layoffs. But those kinds of fiscal moves would free up cash to be reinvested back into classrooms. With that money, Carstarphen could place more resources into developing academic programs that focus on what she refers to as the "bookends of education" — narrowing early childhood achievement gaps and making sure more students graduate from high school. English says that early childhood education opportunities, even ones starting as far back as infancy, play a crucial role in academic performance in later years. But the availability of those programs varies greatly depending on one's socioeconomic background.

"The more work we do with someone from the day they're born until the day they walk into pre-K will make their experience in APS all the more successful," Westmoreland says. "We need to make sure that kids who come from low-income backgrounds have the resources they need in terms of experienced teachers as well as building quality and literal dollars headed their schools' way."

The superintendent says that early childhood development will be a major focus during her first days on the job. In the short term, she says that means bolstering current kindergarten and pre-K programs — the latter only being available on a lottery basis due to limited seats. Later on, Carstarphen could expand pre-K learning opportunities to all children in an attempt to further mitigate the effects of poverty. In some cases, Brown notes, children from low-income families can fall 18 months behind their peers before stepping foot inside a classroom.

"We want to be sure we're doing everything we can to eliminate the achievement gaps before they start," Carstarphen says.

According to Davis, the average tenure of an urban school system superintendent is less than three years. Carstarphen is under contract for three. "The superintendent's job is a horribly difficult, ugly job," Davis says. "That's a reflection of just the sheer challenge of the amount and difficulty of the work." With an education board comprised of six newly elected members who have all expressed an unwavering commitment to Carstarphen's vision, she should have the chance to leave her mark on the tired school system.

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  • Joeff Davis
  • NEW PATH: Meria Carstarphen's earliest months on the job will take place as former APS educators stand trial for their role in a cheating scandal that impacted tens of thousands of students.

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"We're extremely excited," says Leslie Grant, a first-term board member who represents parts of southeast Atlanta. "There's a perception of level of idol worship. ... We don't need to run around with rose-colored glasses, but we do need to believe in potential change."

Carstarphen insists one thing must take precedent over everything else in all upcoming decisions: prioritizing children over adults.

"We are talking about children first," she said in her Atlanta Press Club speech. "We spend less time on the politics, we spend less time on adult issues and we make the right decisions for the right reason and the right moment so we can move forward."

Time is of the essence for Atlanta's top education official. Not only do superintendents have short life spans, their effectiveness quickly wanes over time — 10 percent per year, according to her calculations. But it likely won't be the end of the road for Carstarphen. The superintendent's future holds promise if she can enact positive change within Atlanta's public schools.

Stockwell doesn't know if Carstarphen has national ambitions beyond Atlanta. But he envisions her potentially following the path of Arne Duncan. After an eight-year stint as Chicago Public Schools superintendent — a tenure that's seen in hindsight as a mixed, but generally positive, run — President Barack Obama appointed him as U.S. Secretary of Education in 2009.

"While Austin is bigger than Atlanta as a school system, you get national presence here," Stockwell says. "If you turn APS around, that's a huge notch in your belt."

For now, Carstarphen has immersed herself in the tasks at hand. The first one comes on Aug. 4 and requires getting children in the door for the first day of classes. That mission is easier said than done for a school system that struggles to get thousands of kids to show up.

"If they come to school, they go to class and do their homework; it's a very simple formula," she said during her speech.

By the time school starts, she will have had nearly one full month on the job. Then comes the hard part.

This story has been updated to correct an error. Meria Carstarphen earned a Doctor of Education (Ed.D.) degree from Harvard University, not a Doctor of Philosophy degree (Ph.D.).]

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