Q&A with Atlanta Public Schools superintendent Meria Carstarphen

The Harvard grad plans aggressive changes in organization for a system still recovering from a cheating scandal
Photograph by Ben Rollins
Photograph by Ben Rollins

As students return to the classroom this month, newly appointed Atlanta Public Schools superintendent Meria Carstarphen faces the daunting challenge of restoring public faith in APS. She comes here after five years with the Austin Independent School District, where she was the first female and first African American to serve as superintendent. Previously, she held the same position with Saint Paul Public Schools in Minnesota. Carstarphen, forty-four, has a PhD in administration, planning, and social policy with a concentration in urban superintendency from the Harvard Graduate School of Education, as well as master of education degrees from both Harvard and Auburn universities. She launched her career as a middle school teacher in her native Selma, Alabama, and makes no secret of her loyalty to the South. We met in mid-June, several weeks before her official start date, to discuss her plans for APS.

What accomplishments in Austin are you proudest of, and how might you bring those ideas to Atlanta? I am really proud of the culture we created. When I started, we had an incredibly intense, high-stakes testing environment that was driven by the state. It was really killing our morale. We were sitting in the backyard of the Capitol, and everyone was looking at Austin. The state was closing schools in our district. The commissioner would actually decide on his own whether a school would stay open. You could miss a target by one or two percentage points and still be closed. They had a short list of what they called multiyear, academically unacceptable schools. Everyone knew if you were a target, because the state would always visit a school before closing it. I had one trustee who constantly said, “The house is on fire! The house is on fire! You’ve got to put out the fire!”

In less than five years, we were able to shift completely. We were no longer focused on getting students to regurgitate answers on the state assessment, but we focused on whole-child development; social and emotional learning; and other cocurricular content areas like fine arts, athletics, and world language. Those things had completely fallen off the map when I first started. While testing was important and had high-stakes consequences, the test should still be the afterthought.

What happened to performance? Outcomes were great. We had an all-time high graduation rate. The last official count was 82.5 percent, but I am certain that as we finish out the 2013 numbers, it will be at least 84 percent. The dropout rate will also be at an all-time low. For two consecutive years—and I hope this will be the third— high school attendance topped 90 percent. That was a big first for the district. It’s a simple concept, but I think it’s something people miss. We can’t teach the students if they’re not in class.

The world knows what happened as a result of high-stakes testing here in Atlanta. How do you plan to shift the culture here? Everything isn’t broken with APS, and everything isn’t inefficient. Fair enough, there are whole areas that are broken, but I think that is also about ownership—people working in a space where they feel safe to say, “This isn’t working, and here’s what I need to fix it,” without getting blamed. There’s a lot of blaming. I’ve already seen blogs saying a lot of stuff [about me] that isn’t true, and I haven’t even started yet.

What types of changes will you make? I’m going to have to make some aggressive changes in organization. This is a district that went through the largest cheating scandal in the country, and we still don’t have an accountability, compliance, and testing office to monitor what we’re doing. That will be established.

Other functions need to be put in places where people “own” the systems. The student data system and special education—where do those things belong? How do we make sure that instead of blaming and pointing fingers, we get people the support they need? I know that will upset some people, but we have to make some core organizational changes that will allow us to actually restart in some areas. Otherwise I think people will always question how deep the rabbit hole goes. In order to fill that hole, I need a new starting place. And that will be pretty intense.

Austin’s school system is nearly twice as large as Atlanta’s. Why did you choose to come here? I’m from Selma, and we love Atlanta. I have family here. People I graduated from high school with live in Atlanta. Their kids go to school here. I really did think that I was going to spend more time in Austin and enjoy the fruits of our hard labor, but the district was in a good place, and I knew I could leave it in good hands. Atlanta really needs the kind of intensity that you’ll get out of a person like me who loves this great Southern American city.

Everybody in the world knows Atlanta. The city has earned its place in the global marketplace, and it deserves a quality school system. We are a partner in the ATL. We want the public schools to be a high-quality choice for families, not just a school here or there but as an entire system. There are a lot of people in Atlanta who can help us get this right once and for all.

The business community here did a lot to support APS, and they kind of got caught embracing some of the data that subsequently turned out to be inaccurate. Now they are supporting your transition. How will you make sure they do not have too much influence over the schools? I’ve been a superintendent a couple of times now—even in Washington, D.C., where I wasn’t superintendent, but had a senior-level position. So I’ve seen it done many different ways. At one extreme, I had a chamber [of commerce] that was absolutely not interested in public education and arguably had a vouchers agenda [supporting public funds for private schools]—it was that extreme. On the other end, the Austin chamber really put skin in the game. They were a great partner. But it is push-pull.

I didn’t accept every idea they had or every position they took at the legislative level. We were able to respectfully disagree and still find ways to do good things for kids. There’s a line we shouldn’t cross. I will tell you no. Your position or influence won’t matter.

There’s only one group that I feel like I answer to, and that’s the children of Atlanta. At the end of the day, my decision-making is always about them.


This article originally appeared in our August 2014 issue under the headline “Tough Assignment.”