Atlanta needs to keep Meria Carstarphen as its school superintendent

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.

Superintendent Meria Carstarphen at the “Back to School Bash” on Saturday, Aug. 10 (Photo by Maria Saporta)

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.”

Meria Carstarphen at the Rotary Club of Atlanta with Stephanie Blank, chair of Rotary’s program committee (Photo by Maria Saporta)

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.

APS Superintendent Meria Carstarphen, schools staff, and Rotarians on Aug. 5 (Photo by Maggie Lee)

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.

Joe Carstarphen Meria Carstarphen

The late Joseph Carstarphen and his daughter, Meria Carstarphen, in Selma in 2015 (Photos by Maria Saporta)

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.

 

Maria Saporta, Editor, is a longtime Atlanta business, civic and urban affairs journalist with a deep knowledge of our city, our region and state.  Since 2008, she has written a weekly column and news stories for the Atlanta Business Chronicle. Prior to that, she spent 27 years with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, becoming its business columnist in 1991. Maria received her Master’s degree in urban studies from Georgia State and her Bachelor’s degree in journalism from Boston University. Maria was born in Atlanta to European parents and has two young adult children.

16 replies
  1. Avatar
    Edith says:

    Atlanta's children and families need new leadership, a new and progressive vision and a superintendent that embraces meaningful citizen involvement and participation and equal education opportunities for all children and families without regard to race, economic condition or social status of the children, family or the neighborhood. A beautiful building does not guarantee equality or quality in education programs, activities, or services. The question remains: Is this the best person for ALL Stakeholders and for Atlanta's diverse populations and neighborhoods? We need new leadership to begin to address complex issues in order to move the academic needle 10 giant steps in forward for all Atlantans-to receive the same benefits.Report

    Reply
  2. Avatar
    Mike says:

    Edith, without speaking in circles, please explain clearly as to why you feel that Dr. Carstarphen needs to be replaced. Do you have any data to support your position? Do you have any candidates in mind that you think could/would do a better job at APS than Meria? Do you acknowledge that changing superintendents within a school system as large as APS will be restarting the clock back, starting all over again, with new ideas, initiatives, and administrations?Report

    Reply
  3. Avatar
    Brainstar8 says:

    The new leadership is needed at City Hall, and maybe on the school system's board. We lived in Atlanta for more than 30 years, and this is the first period in at least that many years that the city school system is being considered as making progress – in other words, not sub-standard. I've begun to wonder if the City, and those who run it, actually understand the meaning of success. Maybe success to some means something to fight about, to feel angst about, and to constantly have seemingly insurmountable challenges that draw attention.
    Why not recognize success and go forward?Report

    Reply
  4. Avatar
    Brainstar8 says:

    The new leadership is needed at City Hall, and maybe on the school system's board. We lived in Atlanta for more than 30 years, and this is the first period in at least that many years that the city school system is being considered as making progress – in other words, not sub-standard. I've begun to wonder if the City, and those who run in, actually understand the meaning of success. Maybe success to some means something to fight about, to feel angst about, and to constantly have seemingly insurmountable challenges that draw attention.
    Why not recognize success and go forward?Report

    Reply
  5. Avatar
    Julian Bene says:

    Dr. C "an outspoken critic against the use of tax allocation dollars for development projects"

    Right, but that's only partly true. She was a critic until the school board caved in last January, handing half a billion more school taxes to TADs to subsidize developers in the Gulch and elsewhere.

    So have the bosses told board members to punish Dr. C for ever speaking out against them – even though she participated in the eventual cave-in?

    Have ambitious board members noticed that Byron Amos, who fell over himself to throw school money at the Gulch, lost when he ran for Council District 3? Maybe doing the people's business and ignoring the bosses is not only the right thing to do but also better for poltical ambitions?Report

    Reply
  6. Avatar
    Pearl A McHaney says:

    As an educator for more than forty years, I know that the improvements and advances that APS has made are remarkable and are do primarily to the strong leadership of Dr. Carstarphen. One cannot choose the data to fit one's argument, and the data reported in the report and comments demonstrate the leadership's success. In reply to Edith's comment: the stakeholders that matter for APS are the students; Dr. Carstarphen understands this.Report

    Reply
  7. Avatar
    Conspiracy Theorist says:

    Why are no media outlets reporting that Kasim Reed was on a panel for a movie about the APS cheating scandal on Saturday in Martha's Vineyard? In case you didn't know, Keisha Lance Bottoms has a $1+ million vacation house in Martha's Vineyard and was vacationing there the same time. It makes you wonder who Atlanta's mayors support.

    https://www.capecodtimes.com/news/20190806/talkbacks-energize-vineyards-african-american-film-festivalReport

    Reply
  8. Avatar
    WaitbutWhy says:

    * One of the highest paid superintendents in country for a district that, while it has it's challenges, is not even close to the largest or most challenged in the country
    * Grad rate was largely a change in calculation methodology statewide and a reduction in graduation requirements
    * Budget has gone up close to 50% in 5 years and is second highest in the state. She advocates each year for more tax $ and she also killed legislative proposals to limit Fulton digest growth.
    * Increasing % of students have been outsourced to charters or partners which by definition MC has no direct influence over. It is driving up the cost of running the district overall, reducing spending on traditional schools, and creating under capacity schools with higher concentrations of poverty.Report

    Reply
  9. Avatar
    TS says:

    Superintendent Carstarphen needs to go! The perception is APS is doing much better but in reality APS under her leadership has outsourced several of our lower performing schools, paid millions of dollars in contracts to consultants, pressured teachers to not retain students, bullies teachers and principals. In addition to paying outrageous salaries to her senior cabinet members, the list goes on and on! She needs to leave, or her "Board" will be voted out! Enough is enough!Report

    Reply
  10. Avatar
    Carol B says:

    Thanks Maria, well done. I agree that she has done a great job and we will be lucky if sIhe wants to stay. I hope the Board will put children first and do the right thing.Report

    Reply
  11. Avatar
    V Thaxton says:

    I would say to the APS Board, please let the Superintendent do her job. The City of Atlanta and the Metro area deserves this. The future of the city depends on our children being able to read, write, and think critically. That way, they have the tools they need to say no to gangs and other temptations that are disruptive that may come their way; And with education, they have real viable alternative options. All of this rest on the APS Board of Education. Make us proud. Thank you.Report

    Reply
  12. Avatar
    Christopher Johnston says:

    Since my earlier comment on this subject has disappeared, I will post it again.
    Carstarphen has stayed longer than I had expected.
    A medium-sized public school system does not attract superintendents at the top of the edbiz career ladder. It gets instead a younger person on the way up the ladder (think Carstarphen) or an older person on the way down the ladder to retirement (think Stephen Green in DeKalb).
    Look for Carstarphen to leave.Report

    Reply

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