Atlanta Public Schools’ new superintendent, Dr. Meria Carstarphen, arrived at last night’s Buckhead Council of Neighborhoods meeting early to introduce herself individually to each member of the audience.
“Hi, I’m Meria,” she said, extending her hand and offering an easy smile to parents and community members.
She’s probably already tired of being called a “breath of fresh air,” but Carstarphen’s combination of friendliness and frankness is a refreshing change of tone and demeanor after years of the old guard that aided in ruining APS’s reputation after the cheating scandal, which is still playing out in Atlanta’s courtrooms.
As the new and very public face of APS, Carstarphen knows she has a mountain to climb in restoring faith in the school system. Her turnaround of the Austin, Tx. school district – in attendance numbers, innovative programs, graduation rates – has given Carstarphen the surely unwanted moniker of “savior” of APS. But the Selma, Ala. native has been lauded for her track record in Austin, St. Paul, Minn. and Washington DC, while also gaining a reputation – if you believe all the press accounts – for her demanding and sometimes confrontational style of leadership.
“Austin was gracious enough to understand the challenges facing APS and let me come out early,” Carstarphen said about her arrival this past spring in Atlanta.
Although she didn’t officially begin work until July, Carstarphen was given full access to APS, had meetings with outgoing interim Superintendent Erroll Davis, a retreat with the Atlanta School Board, zeroed in on the district’s most pressing issues and also started pressing the flesh by showing up at schools and meetings around the city.
Before opening day on Aug. 4, Carstarphen was also dealing with transportation, hiring, vendors, safety, security and a laundry list of other issues that needed quick solutions.
“We wanted to open this school year with more cohesiveness and less craziness,” she said. “That’s part of building trust back with the community.”
One of her top priorities was hiring new principals since there was a two-thirds turnover in school leadership. Carstarphen was candid about the sorry state of hiring when it came to principals at APS.
“We brought more rigor to the principal selection process,” she said, “because it was clear that background checks hadn’t been performed and there was a disconnect between finding principals that had vision and direction for the school we were hiring them to lead. There was this looseness about hiring and accountability. Those days are over.”
With principals in place, Carstarphen said the dismal job APS had done in the past of recruiting teachers early would also be a thing of the past. “This has been a problem that has plagued APS,” she said. “We’re going to begin looking for teachers early in the year instead of a month before school starts.”
Carstarphen was also able to shake loose money to hire more teachers over the summer so that when classes resumed on Aug. 4 there were only a handful of openings left. Rather than hire unqualified teachers, Carstarphen frankly said there were long-term substitutes who were better qualified than some of the teaching candidates, so those subs would be in place until more talented teachers could be found.
“This might have been the smoothest opening day APS has had in a long time,” Carstarphen said. “We had so few calls about concerns and issues that I thought our phone system was broken.”
While there are many short-term fixes that need to be made, Carstarphen is also looking ahead. While fielding questions from the audience, she again spoke candidly about her opinions and feelings on everything from early learning and charter schools to high stakes testing and classroom size.
It’s widely known that Carstarphen is a firm supporter of early learning, but she said funding and a commitment from the state and community would be big factors in expanding the opportunities. One potential funding source: the Georgia Lottery.
“We are looking at how to do it for APS, but I think it could expand statewide,” she stated. “We need a commitment from the Georgia Legislature on expanding early childhood education and we need parents locally and across Georgia to get behind it.”
As for charter schools, the new superintendent said the conversation should center more on parent choice.
“Parents know more than the teachers or board or superintendent about what their child needs,” she commented. “We live in a democracy, so we need to offer alternatives and choices and charter schools are just one of those.”
She was adamant that charter schools should not be where you “escape” when one of the traditional public schools isn’t performing as well as it should. She also wants to get parents and the community more involved in APS by setting up advisory councils to help advise the district.
Carstarphen isn’t a fan of so-called high stakes testing, calling it demoralizing and limiting the education process. When asked about the low math rates on the End of Course Testing (EOCT) that Georgia’s ninth through 12th graders must take, Carstarphen – in another instance of complete openness – said she didn’t have the answer yet.
“We know there needs to be more rigor in the classroom to get results, but we’re not even sure what that rigor is, and neither do the teachers. We have no model for it. I need time to figure it out.”
Carstarphen turned the conversation about classroom size back to the need for recruiting the best teachers. She believes that there should be smaller classrooms for early grades, but once students move to middle and high school, having a quality teacher in the classroom is more important than class size.
Carstarphen closed the meeting by addressing the divide of north and south in the district. There’s an often unspoken opinion that the schools in north Atlanta are better than the ones in the south, and the new superintendent is not having it. She faced a similar racial and socio-economic divide between east and west schools in Austin school district and worked hard to erase those invisible barrier lines.
“There’s a lot of misunderstanding and judgment about north and south in APS – a tension that shouldn’t exist,” Carstarphen said. “The district will never be as great as it can be until we make thoughtful decisions so that all families are equal.”
She said APS should feel like a system and not individual schools.
“We need to embrace a fully-functioning school system,” Carstarphen said. “We are all APS, and what we have to ask ourselves is how do we make the entire system strong.”