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District Dialogue

Leader advocates for Atlanta's schools

Superintendent Meria Carstarphen strives to fix the ailing Atlanta Public Schools system
Meria Carstarphen came to lead Atlanta’s troubled school system in 2014 after 20 years of experience in education in districts in Texas, Minnesota and Washington, D.C.
Meria Carstarphen came to lead Atlanta’s troubled school system in 2014 after 20 years of experience in education in districts in Texas, Minnesota and Washington, D.C.

Meria Carstarphen is a team player—literally.

She has played football in the hot summer sun alongside varsity players at Atlanta Public Schools. The district superintendent also gives her personal cell phone number to staff and students alike. They can text her or call her—any time. In addition, they follow each other on Twitter.

And because she was too busy with budget meetings, she recently gave away her ticket to see the late Prince in concert in Atlanta to the first person who tweeted her wearing Atlanta Public Schools T-shirts and hats.

“I’m not the superintendent that most people don’t even know. I am the person behind the message.”

Carstarphen came to lead Atlanta’s troubled school system in 2014 after 20 years of experience in education in districts in Texas, Minnesota and Washington, D.C. She had served as superintendent for Austin ISD before taking the job in Atlanta.

The Atlanta community had lost trust in the district, given the infamous cheating scandal, dysfunctional bureaucracy and poor performance of schools during the tenure of the late Beverly Hall.

Today, 15 schools are part of a turnaround plan, with plans to have charter school operators run five of them within traditional neighborhood boundary lines. Four of the other schools are being consolidated into two schools and will be run by the district, and a fifth turnaround school will be closed and replaced by a K8 STEM Academy.

The district awaits word on a potential state takeover. A critical part of the turnaround plan includes a contract with The Collaborative for Academic, Social and Emotional Learning (CASEL). The independent nonprofit organization administers social-emotional learning. It teaches students relationship skills, responsible decision-making and how to regulate their emotions.

Superintendent Carstarphen recently spoke with Managing Editor Angela Pascopella about her first two years there.

You came to Atlanta Public Schools in July 2014, following Superintendent Erroll Davis. What were the main problems?

At the 50,000-foot level, I inherited a district that was performing far below the potential of the students. It was in desperate need of transformation and many areas of the system were broken. There were disparate education philosophies and well-documented inequities that left the school community with trust and perception issues.

At the heart of all those issues we felt there was a culture challenge. Many adult-oriented agendas needed to change to become more child-centered. In addition to being honest and truthful about what had happened in the past, we were also able to pull out nuggets of hope and showcase those things and set them up to be models of expectation in areas of the district.

We needed to rethink our approach to our behavior, our thinking and our practice that would lead to a more whole-child and whole-adult support network. We worked hard to become part of CASEL to train adults and children about values and behaviors, and I think that has been successful for us. And we’ve been far more open and transparent about our data and our work and our engagement with the school community.

How did the staff and community respond to your new leadership?

It depends on what your experience was in the district. Some people said, “Yay, it’s going to be a new day. We have an experienced person running the place. We can expect improvements in management and services.”

Some who were directly affected by the cheating scandal were more skeptical. Some are still in a “wait-and-see” approach.

The children who were the real victims of the cheating scandal are mostly still here, mostly in high school. And they’ve grown up with this cloud over their system.

So it’s about rebuilding the trust with the children. It’s been about being accessible and comfortable with them. Any student can talk to me. I care about them deeply and I’m available to them and want to hear about their experiences.

I play football with the football players. I suit up and play with them in the hot deep south in July and August. I put on the helmet and the pads. So when they say, “Supe, we need a new tennis net” or “the field has potholes, they need to be fixed,” I know what they are saying because I’ve been there with them.

I often donate money to help students go on field trips, including to Selma, my hometown, for the anniversary of the March to Montgomery.

On the adult side, employee engagement is a really important piece. It’s about access. To get to the central office as an employee [years ago], you had to have a special pass to get to the floor of the superintendent. Anybody knows now that you can come up anytime.

And we have a much more improved human resources office that can work with employee relations. And here’s a big one to help rebuild trust: This was a district where something as basic as paying people on time and at the correct salary was not being done.

I had a $30 million problem regarding pay parity and fair compensation. If the board approves my proposal, during my second budget cycle we will be two-thirds of the way to fixing it.

Many students still in the system were elementary students during the scandal. Where do they stand now?

When I came to the district, the first thing I asked for was an analysis of how they were doing, how many were still in the system. No one had any information. No one could even produce the names. The district strategy years ago to remediate children from the scandal was not individualized at all.

So I teamed up with the state and Dr. Tim Sass [distinguished professor at Georgia State University]. He and his team released a report last year on the long-term effects of the teacher cheating scandal on student outcomes.

Then I had my administration and the accountability office find every child. And then I told the student support teams to pull every academic record of all the kids who are still here and analyze their record.

Every child received an individualized learning plan. We invited their parents to talk about where their child was, and if they need tutoring, they get it. Whatever the solution is, we give it to them.

We started with $5 million in enrichment and remediation. We have partnered with Communities in Schools, which has support coaches who help students develop their Individual Learning Plans. I will keep investing in those ILPs so they will graduate. Some need deep, deep support. The plan goes through 2021 when every child affected by the scandal should have graduated.

Tell us about the potential state takeover and plans to avoid it.

We have many schools that qualify. We’re vulnerable because we are at high risk in so many areas of the accountability system. With that situation, you need to understand how far you are willing to go to change low performance in a district.

Districts should be responsible for educating students, at minimum, to the expectations of the state. And if we’re not doing it, we need to be prepared to take bold actions, to create plans and opportunities to give people hope for the future.

What we are doing with our turnaround plan is being honest about the situation and then creating solid, engaging, exciting plans that will make students, parents and caregivers, and staff members excited about the future.

One game-changing lever—and it was bit of a fight because people didn’t understand it—was to embark on social and emotional learning for adults and children. Bringing humanity and heart back to our work is core to our turnaround. I believe that’s why we are able to get so much of the traction we are seeing now. Our graduation rates did go up and we anticipate better academic improvement.

Any leadership tips for others struggling with low-performing schools?

As a leader, I think it’s really important to know who you are, what you stand for and what you believe.

I believe when public schools aren’t strong, the nation isn’t strong. And that’s why we have to fight so hard to make sure American public schools all get the turnaround they need.

I also know that if I see a tweet from a child and they tag me, and I see they are hurting or something is wrong in their school, leadership is caring enough to take action to change that outcome.

And you must demonstrate to the community who you are and be consistent. How do you drive change? What will you do to innovate growth? And what do you expect of your team and colleagues? So they [community members] don’t have to guess how you will react or behave as a leader. DA