By Maria Saporta
Published in the Atlanta Business Chronicle on February 6, 2015
When the city of Atlanta’s new schools chief Meria Carstarphen attended school in her hometown of Selma, Ala., in the 1970s, the ground-breaking 1965 Selma-to-Montgomery march was never mentioned in her social studies or history classes.
So it was with great satisfaction that as superintendent of the Atlanta Public Schools, Carstarphen was able to jump on the opportunity last month for 13,000 high school and middle school students to go see the recently released movie — “Selma” — free of charge and make that part of the system’s curriculum.
But Carstarphen and APS had to raise $100,000 in less than a week to be part of a national effort to show the movie to students as a way of commemorating the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday.
For Carstarphen, it would be a test: Would the Atlanta business community respond to an appeal by the Atlanta Public Schools after the divisive and damaging experience that it had gone through with the test cheating scandal during the tenure of former Superintendent Beverly Hall?
In 48 hours, she had her answer. The community ended up raising $130,000 — receiving donations large and small — including substantial checks from several of the larger companies in town.
“If it weren’t for some of our local business folks and larger corporations we wouldn’t have been able to do it,” Carstarphen said. “It couldn’t have come together in a more special place. Here I am, and I have an opportunity to change the curriculum and really teach our students about an important part of American history.”
Carstarphen has been Atlanta’s school superintendent since July 7 — finding that her job to rebuild the city’s public school system is even tougher than she had expected.
She will be making her first major talk to the local business community on Feb. 9 when she will address the Rotary Club of Atlanta.
Her message to those who have been on the sidelines is she wants to welcome them back when they are ready to re-engage.
“Every city has its own tone from a business community perspective,” said Carstarphen, who has worked in Austin, Texas; St. Paul, Minn.; and Washington, D.C. “You have one group that believes you have to have a strong public school system to make sure you have a strong workforce so you don’t pay the penalty on the back-end. They believe in the power of that diploma.
“Then there is another bucket that’s ‘wait-and-see.’ They are trying to find their way back to what they believe is appropriate and is an improved version of whatever their relationship was in the past,” Carstarphen continued. “Wait as long as you feel you need to to be comfortable to get back into the work that APS is doing. I would hope that over time, people would look at what we are doing and get comfortable and get back into the system.”
From Carstarphen’s perspective, Atlanta’s school system had lost its way.
“What I’m trying to do is make it about our kids and our schools,” she said. “I don’t think anybody can disagree — we want our kids to have a quality education and have the best choices in life.”
But she has been somewhat surprised at how hard it has been to rebuild the school system by getting everyone to agree that the students should come first.
“We are not an employment agency,” Carstarphen said. “We are a public school system, and it is our job to look for quality educators and get people to understand that that’s our vision and mission — so everyone does not qualify for a job. Everyone who does have a job has to agree to put the children first.”
When she began interviewing for the Atlanta job, Carstarphen said she had been aware of the issues facing Atlanta as a result of the cheating scandal. She also hired several “good people” who had left Atlanta, who told her about the “loss of organizational integrity,” and that it was “a culture that was all about adults.”
But once she came to Atlanta, she realized that the challenges were even more far-reaching.
“While it may seem on the surface that it is an APS issue, it has broader community legs to it,” she said. “That’s the part you don’t really know about until you get into it. It’s not just the school system that has to change its behavior and its practice, but it’s the community that has to change its expectations of the district.”
Low expectations don’t lead to strong results.
And then Carstarphen shared her beliefs in urban education, and it’s not just about how well students perform on tests. In her mind, the academics only account for a third of what it takes to prepare a child for a prosperous future.
“We have to educate the whole child in every child,” she said. “Academics, yes. You have to take some tests. But there’s another third. Experiences – internships, co-curricular activities, quality experiences in school, the arts, athletics, the quality of life bridge.
“The other third is that you’ve got to get kids excited about the future. It’s about providing the psycho, social and behavioral support. We are going to support you in mind and spirit so you come out whole, not broken; so you come out hopeful, not hopeless.”
Carstarphen said she knows that “my children are coming from homes in ZIP codes that are not great. If I don’t teach them in our schools, they won’t get it.”
And that’s why she said so much of her time in Atlanta has been to remind APS employees the difference between right and wrong — because the children are watching them.
“In urban education, we have to teach children the difference in right and wrong,” she said. “We have to give them second chances. In our urban setting, culture is everything. Culture eats strategy for breakfast every day.” But the upside is what keeps her going. “Atlanta is such an extraordinary global city with global commerce and a rich portfolio of big companies and small business owners,” said Carstarphen, who stayed away from talking about current conflict between APS and the city over the Atlanta BeltLine tax allocation payments. “If you have a high-performing school system, it’s the best economic stimulus package you can have.”
So that’s where Carstarphen hopes the business community will become more engaged in the rebuilding of Atlanta’s public schools. It can be working with one child, working on the transition from early education to kindergarten, from high school to college, and everything in-between. APS needs expertise to work on pension reform and its offerings in fine arts. And sometimes it just needs to raise money so it can take students to watch a movie like “Selma” about the civil rights movement and learn how the Voting Rights Act came to pass.
That was a true “coming full circle” moment for Carstarphen, who will be honored in her hometown during the 50th anniversary of the Selma-to-Montgomery march next month. On a recent visit to see her parents in Selma, they didn’t let her forget where she was from.
“We drove by the plot where my parents said I will rest,” Carstarphen said. “They were telling me: ‘You were born here, and you will end here.'”