As incoming Atlanta Public School superintendent Dr. Meria Carstarphen made her first public appearance in Atlanta on Tuesday, top corporate and city leaders gathered Downtown with all the ease of a newly divorced bachelor on a blind date. It’s no secret that the local business community got burned embracing Carstaphen’s predecessor, the embattled Dr. Beverly Hall. So you can understand a note of caution. Fool me once…
But Carstarphen, who has spent the past five years heading up Austin, Texas, schools, bears little resemblance to Hall. When I first met Dr. Hall nearly ten years ago, I’d never jumped through so many hoops to get an interview—even for the likes of Ted Turner or Rosalynn Carter. Hall’s handlers had handlers. In fact, one APS press release was so opaque and loaded with meaningless jargon that I kept it for years as an example of “what not to do” for interns. And that was before the cheating scandal.
A former middle school teacher, Carstarphen seemed at ease during the Atlanta Press Club-sponsored luncheon at the Commerce Club—abruptly interrupting her preliminaries to tease Atlanta School Board chair Courtney English, who was hunched intently over his phone. “Chair English, you cannot be texting.”
A native of Selma, Alabama, whose little sister went to UGA, Carstarphen says that coming to Georgia feels like coming home. “My parents still live in Selma. They’ve now decided that every time I’m in Atlanta they’re going to come visit me. And make no mistake, there’s nothing I’m more afraid of in life than disappointing my parents. So there’s nothing that could happen here that could possibly set me off of my path of making things go right for Atlanta public school children.”
Among the priorities Carstarphen mentioned were improving staff morale, building a strong leadership team on both the administrative and school levels, and maintaining reliable data. “The culture of a school is made or broken everyday by who’s leading that school,” she said. “This principal leadership piece, I don’t care how small or how big the school is, this is what we have to be completely on top of.” She cautioned against assuming that the APS situation can only improve. “The bottom never bottoms until you hit zero,” she said. Remembering how segregation lingered in Selma decades after the civil rights victories of the sixties, she urged the community not to get overconfident.
Another of her immediate concerns is the disproportionate placement of African-Americans in special education or disciplinary programs, which can lead to young lives being trapped within the juvenile justice system. Over the course of three years in Austin, Carstarphen said, the system was able to reduce discretionary removals by a little over 60 percent. “That meant that we started seeing other things,” she said. “Good news: if they come to school, they go to class, they do their homework—it is a very simple formula—that can actually predict graduation on time.”
Carstarphen takes office on July 7. Notably missing from yesterday's speech: any mention of testing.