There is something unexpected about Dr. Meria Carstarphen, the forty-seven-year-old superintendent of Atlanta Public Schools. Maybe it’s that she’s a hugger (“you should have seen my dad at church,” she says), or that, instead of a suit, she shows up to her interview wearing a red-and-white baseball tee that reads, “Superintendent I Am.”
Or perhaps it’s her nearly tangible sense of optimism. Carstarphen joined Atlanta Public Schools in 2014, after a cheating scandal purged schools of many teachers and administrators. After a yearlong, nationwide search for a new superintendent, the school board unanimously appointed Carstarphen. “I’m sure a person with less grit might get overwhelmed, but I chose my path,” she says.
Raised in Selma, Alabama, Carstarphen, a Tulane and Auburn graduate, began teaching Spanish and documentary photography at her former middle school in 1992. She witnessed firsthand how factors such as socioeconomic status and race can affect children’s futures. “It’s like you’re fighting in a system that knows you need to win, but there are just layers and layers of deeply encrusted issues,” she says.
She believes education can change that—that mentors and educators can help pull kids out of poverty. In 1998, Carstarphen enrolled in Harvard University’s rigorous urban superintendency program, which prepares doctoral students to lead big-city school districts where educational reform, welfare needs, and the justice system are invariably linked. Since then, she’s served as a superintendent in three cities: St. Paul, Austin, and now Atlanta.
Of them, she says Atlanta has been the toughest (the deep-seated issues and political pressure have proven especially challenging), but Carstarphen has already seen improvement. In 2015, the district’s graduation rate jumped to a record 71.5 percent, 12 percent higher than the year before. “I have great hope for my community and for our country’s future,” Carstarphen says. With stats like these, her optimism may not be so unexpected after all.