Atlanta Public Schools Superintendent Ready To Fix ‘Broken’ System

Credit Jason Parker / WABE
Audio version of this story here.

Dr. Meria Carstarphen blogs, she tweets and she constantly promotes positive news about the Atlanta Public Schools system. She was hired as its superintendent last summer with a unanimous vote by the Atlanta Public Schools board.

When she arrived in Atlanta, APS Board Chairman Courtney English was quoted as saying, “This city could use some unity. She’s the right leader at the right time.”  

Is that unity in danger these days, as Superintendent Carstarphen and Mayor Kasim Reed publicly debate possession of APS property deeds and BeltLine tax payments?  

“The truth is, the stakes are high in public education, especially when we get it wrong,” Carstarphen told the Atlanta Rotary Club earlier this week.

She stated that the school system is “broken,” and that its problems started long before the notorious cheating scandal that took place under the leadership of former Superintendent Beverly Hall.

In urging her audience to support investment in the public schools, Superintendent Carstarphen emphasized the role of quality education in economic development, saying, “One of our community’s best stimulus packages is the high school diploma.”

Carstarphen talked with “A Closer Look” co-hosts Rose Scott and Jim Burress live in the WABE studio Wednesday about her time as superintendent and the recent conflicts between APS and the city of Atlanta.

Watch video of Dr. Carstarphen’s “A Closer Look” interview by clicking here, or click the play buttons below to listen.Part one of the “A Closer Look” interview with Dr. Meria Carstarphen.Part two of the “A Closer Look” interview with Dr. Meria Carstarphen.

Changing the Culture at APS

When she became superintendent, Carstarphen highlighted a need for dramatic culture change within the Atlanta Public Schools system. A motto she cites frequently is, “culture eats strategy for breakfast every day.”

Wednesday she told Rose Scott and Jim Burress, “for us, it’s about the people.” Carstarphen explained that she has never viewed the culture of APS as something uniquely problematic in recent years. Rather, in her opinion it was caused by “a multi generation breakdown of systems.”

After taking time for evaluation, Carstarphen decided two key changes are needed across APS: integrity and quality.

Carstarphen was faced with 22 vacancies in principal positions when she started her job last summer.  About hiring, she said, “those people must think about children first.”

While a new mission statement was still under development, in every job Carstarphen filled, she sought, “to see if these are the people to have the hearts and minds and the experience, to carry the vision and mission.”

Her role is to provide those new principals with the resources to do their jobs well, she said.

Resources, Time and Money

The superintendent is pleased with new funding provided in Gov. Nathan Deal’s budget.

Her priorities for that new funding are to improve graduation rates and to expand early childhood education, remediation services as well as enrichment services that make kids “feel excited about the future.” 

She would like to ensure that every child has “a great teacher in front of them,” and a principal who is conveying the positive vision for everyone.

Cheating Scandal

When asked about children who were deprived of services due to the cheating scandal, Carstarphen’s expression grew grave. 

From the beginning, she said, she has insisted on “extra dosage support” for children who were in schools where cheating took place.

She also sought—and received─the board’s support for student support teams and for tutoring, analyzing individual transcripts, offering special education and examination of students’ individual education plans.  The board allocated $4 million specifically to support student support teams and “represent a direct investment in students.”

Scott asked Carstarphen if she ever gets tired of hearing about the cheating scandal.  (The prosecution just rested its case today.)

“I’m never tired of hearing the truth,” Carstarphen said. “It keeps you grounded, it keeps you very laser-like focused on your job.” However, she said, “I don’t want it to be our legacy.”  

APS has “a fighting chance to make this right again,” Carstarphen said.

She does “follow headlines” and “tries to read between the lines as well,” to make sure she doesn’t miss any elements that might be needed for reform, but said she is focused on the future.

After the cheating scandal, and public efforts that she made to talk to APS employees about the solutions, Carstarphen received many personal messages from the staff in return. 

“They had needed to hear a fresh, positive commitment to progress,” she said.  

If she were not already deeply committed to her job, the superintendent said, these messages motivated her more than ever.

An All-Charter District?

Carstarphen referred to community meetings, like the one she hosted at Douglass High School last night, and their importance in shaping the decision APS still needs to make about its form of operation.  She said she’s optimistic that whatever new model APS chooses will support its success.

She views the system’s “flagship” elements, or the high schools, as critical to leading the way for their clusters.

African-American Male Students at Risk

Carstarphen acknowledged her own experience, from graduate work at Harvard and onward, in studying and analyzing the challenges to African-American males’ educational success. She has hosted discussions about how to allocate resources fairly to historically-disadvantaged student populations such as black males.

“This is one of the ‘past wrong’ areas that we raised,” Carstarphen said, indicating that the discussion, and initiatives to address past wrongs, will continue.

Mayor Reed and the BeltLine

When asked to explain her position on the dispute that has been taking place over the sale of legacy properties such as the George Adair School, Carstarphen said, “For us, it’s pretty straightforward.”

“We just followed the process,” of working with the city, developers, and the community, on selling legacy properties such as the George Adair School.

“I am determined to do my part to make these things right,” she said. “It means I need the systemic pieces, of what has been broken for so long” including fixing a historically “broken” relationship between APS and the city of Atlanta.

Superintendent Carstarphen listened to Mayor Reed’s comments from “A Closer Look” on Monday, as he talked about a special role he played in assuring that she was considered in the final round of interviews, perhaps implying that she had him to thank for her current position. 

Carstarphen’s reply looked determinedly to the future, pointing to the financial needs of the Atlanta Public Schools that must be fulfilled through adequate funding from the city. She said she remains open to finding a solution both on BeltLine tax payment issues and the sale of APS properties.

Pension Obligations

Characterizing the funding staff pensions as “pretty much a nightmare,” Carstarphen told “A Closer Look” that “the pension will be fully-funded in 16 years,” she said.

“It’s something we inherited,” she said. “We’ve been deadly serious about fixing it.” 

A standing committee works on the problem in monthly meetings. With 15 percent of pensioners falling in the group “left over from the city,”— obligations she says were not incurred directly by APS ─ and the remaining 85 percent from current APS commitments, Carstarphen presented an optimistic outlook for the resolution of these debts.

Private School Credits

The superintendent touted Atlanta as a system offering important models of school choice, but she did not express an opinion on a legislative proposal to offer credits for parents to send their children to private schools. 

APS has not performed any analysis of that proposal’s impact on the system.

When asked about her future, Carstarphen declined to speculate on renewal of her initial three year contract. 

“I absolutely love my job,” she said. “I’m a student of Aristotle: ‘where the needs of the world, and your talents intersect, therein lies my vocation.’” 

With a laser-like focus, she believes, “It doesn’t take a lot to keep getting people back on track.”

Video of Dr. Carstarphen’s interview