By Maria Saporta
Under the leadership of Superintendent Meria Carstarphen, the Atlanta Public Schools has experienced tremendous – and verifiable – gains over the past five years.
For example, the graduation rate has jumped 20.8 percent – from 59 percent in 2014 to 80 percent in 2018. That is only one of several benchmarks one can point to showing genuine progress during Carstarphen’s tenure. SAT and ACT scores also are up systemwide
But, for reasons hard to explain, Carstarphen’s future in Atlanta is up in the air.
Insiders say a vote of the Atlanta Board of Education’s current eight members could go either way.
In June 2018, the board voted 6-3 to extend Carstarphen’s contract by one year – until June 30. 2020. In the very near future, the board is expected to decide whether to renew Carstarphen’s contract or to part ways with the superintendent, who has been highly sought-after nationally. Some board members have expressed concern that if they renew her contract, she might leave to take another job.
But Carstarphen, a native of Selma, Ala. (where her mother still lives), insists she really wants to stay in Atlanta for personal and professional reasons.
”I want to stay in Atlanta,” Carstarphen said without hesitation. “I’m proud to be the superintendent for Atlanta Public Schools! I am committed to our kids, our parents and our community. APS has made great progress in the last five years, but we still have a long way to go.”
Key community leaders are standing behind Carstarphen – hoping the APS board will vote to keep her in Atlanta.
“I think Meria is doing a extraordinary job on behalf of every student and family in Atlanta,” said Ann Cramer, a civic leader who chaired the search for Carstarphen in 2014. “I would be very, very sad to see her leave. She’s terrific. The work is not done.”
Stephanie Blank, a philanthropist focused on early childhood education, agreed.
“Righting a ship as large as the Atlanta Public Schools takes time and continuity,” said Blank, who invited the superintendent to speak to the Rotary Club of Atlanta on Aug. 5. “Having worked with Dr. Carstarphen since she got here, I’ve found there’s no question about her commitment to do the right thing for Atlanta’s children. I know she’s making a difference.”
Carstarphen is the first person to spotlight the weaknesses in Atlanta’s public schools.
During her talk at Rotary, she talked about the inequities that exist. About 75 percent of APS students live in poverty, and three of the poorest schools in the entire state are in Atlanta – Boyd Elementary, Thomasville Heights and Fain Elementary.
“According to the most current census data, the median household income within our school district is $167,087 for white students and $23,803 for black students,” she said. “Closely associated with this inequity gap is the academic achievement gap…. White students are nearly 4.5 grade levels ahead of their black peers within Atlanta Public Schools.”
Turning around an urban public school district is one of the hardest jobs that exists in America today.
The average tenure for an urban superintendent in high poverty areas tends to be relatively short. With five years under her belt, Carstarphen is now the second longest-serving superintendent in the metro area.
(The longest-serving superintendent is J. Alvin Wilbanks of Gwinnett’s public schools, who has been in his post since 1996. It is not a coincidence that Gwinnett is one of the best public school systems in the state – thanks largely to Wilbanks’ leadership and ability to implement his initiatives).
Obviously efforts to turnaround public school systems often fail because leaders aren’t given a chance to finish what they start. And when they leave, their teams often are dismantled or find other opportunities. Then new leaders come in with their own ideas, which can take years to develop and implement. Few superintendents last long enough to fully implement their vision – so as school systems jump from leader to leader and from one policy to the next, tangible progress is hard to realize.
If the board parts ways with Carstarphen, Atlanta’s ability to attract a strong leader will be difficult, according to a longstanding supporter of APS who asked to speak on background.
“The superintendent who has led this progress wants to keep manning the helm and continue to address these problems,” he said. “If her contract isn’t extended, what strong and respected superintendent would want to come work for a board that pushed out a leader with such strong results?”
Without a doubt, Carstarphen’s passion is infectious – she received a long standing ovation after her Atlanta Rotary talk. But she does have her critics. She has a forceful personality, and like most change agents, she has been known to ruffle some feathers.
As soon as she arrived in Atlanta, unfortunately former Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed was confrontational rather than collaborative. At first, it appeared as though Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms would have a better relationship with Carstarphen. But the city and APS continue to be at an impasse – often having to settle their differences in court. For example, the city has yet to turn over all of APS’ property deeds back to the school system.
Carstarphen also has been an outspoken critic against the use of tax allocation dollars for development projects, money she says APS needs to fulfill its mission of creating a caring culture of trust and collaboration so that “every student will graduate ready for college and career.”
Ideally, we need to find more common ground between APS, the city, the business and civic community. But it is obvious Carstarphen’s major weakness is also her greatest strength – she is singularly focused on what’s best for students attending Atlanta’s public schools. Certainly we should find a way for everyone to move in a unified constructive direction.
And let’s not forget where we have been.
Carstarphen came to Atlanta after the widespread cheating scandal under the tenure of the late Beverly Hall – a huge embarrassment for Atlanta. As soon as she arrived, Carstarphen and the APS board instituted a strong ethics policy to make sure history would never be repeated.
One of the best arguments for keeping Carstarphen is the stability she has brought to the Atlanta school system – a district with nearly 52,000 students attending 87 schools and programs.
Principal turnover has decreased significantly from 30 percent (she had to hire 24 new principals in 2014) to 5 percent this year (when she only had to hire four).
Teacher vacancies on the first day of school dropped from 243 in 2013 to fewer than 10 this year (APS students began the new school year on Monday, Aug. 12). It is the sixth year in a row that APS has had fewer than 10 teacher vacancies on the first day of school.
Given the progress that has occurred under her leadership, Meria Carstarphen deserves a multi-year contract so she and her team can continue the transformation they began five years ago.
The future of Atlanta’s children depends on the Atlanta Board of Education doing the right thing.