About two months ago, Meria Carstarphen introduced herself to dozens of Atlanta's top educators, politicians, and journalists at the Commerce Club for an Atlanta Press Club newsmaker luncheon. It was her first public appearance as the new superintendent of Atlanta Public Schools. "It's a little nerve–racking," she said.
At the meeting, the incoming superintendent laid out her sweeping vision for APS. She delved into how she planned to overhaul the public school system's culture, implement measures to ensure accountability, make transparent decisions, and treat all students equally, no matter their households' ZIP codes. She also gave Atlantans one major piece of advice: Let go of the past. Everyone knew she was referring to the notorious APS cheating scandal, although she didn't directly mention it.
"[The past challenges] can hold the system back if we don't start letting some of those things go," Carstarphen said in her speech. "It's not to forget that those things happened. It's not to ignore the problems. But it is to start putting it in its place to start shedding these things, stepping out of the past, and into a very, very bright future."
Carstarphen officially started work as the new head of APS on July 7. The superintendent takes the reins at a critical juncture for the dysfunctional 47,000-student public school system. APS has a 58.6 percent graduation rate, which puts it among the lowest-performing districts in a state with the nation's fifth-worst public education system. To bring about change, Carstarphen must drastically boost academic performance in a city with widespread inequality. Her most daunting task will be to mend the trust broken by the mammoth cheating scandal that duped parents, harmed students, and left a black eye on the school system.
The Alabama native, considered by many to be a rising star in the education world, has dramatically improved public school systems in Minnesota and Texas. Her supporters think she can save the city's beleaguered public education system. Her critics say she operates too independently and, at times, does so to the detriment of students. By all accounts, Atlanta presents the toughest challenge yet in Carstarphen's career.
Carstarphen, 44, characterizes her move to Atlanta as a homecoming of sorts. She grew up in a major battleground for the Voting Rights Movement and attended schools that were largely segregated even well into the '80s. The self-described "daughter of the Deep South" was born in Selma, Ala. Her upbringing emphasized the importance of public education from an early age.
"I went to school at a time in the South where they were still doing tracking," she says. "I was one of two black students in my class. You never saw your community in class with you. As you got older, for me that was fourth grade, you see those things. It drove me to want to address why we were having separate proms, why there weren't more black students in honors courses. It was a lot of seeing and recognizing in Selma those things that would determine what would happen to your future. ... I saw it make or break people's lives."
Carstarphen, who's been an educator for nearly two decades, majored in political science and Spanish at Tulane University. Although she taught Selma middle school students for four years after graduating, she's also worked as a journalist for National Geographic, Selma Times-Journal, Southern Living, and other publications.
Her focus shifted to education during an assignment to cover Catholic ministers in Venezuela. On her off days, she worked alongside nuns as a volunteer teacher in the shantytowns of Caracas. Upon her return, Carstarphen obtained several more education degrees, including an Ed.D. from Harvard University. Between 1999 and 2006, she moved around to five different education positions — a tendency some called "restless" — that allowed her to gain experience as a public school administrator in Columbus, Ohio, Kingsport, Tenn., and Washington, D.C.
In 2006, she landed her first superintendent gig in Saint Paul, Minn., a 42,000-student system that saw test scores on the rise yet struggled with a widening minority achievement gap. Carstarphen successfully pushed for a $180 million bond package, combatted racial inequality by restructuring school districts, and helped increase the number of kids enrolled in the system. But some ex-staffers criticized her management style for being unnecessarily confrontational. They said the achievement of goals came at the cost of disrespecting people within the organization. In an open letter to a local newspaper, one former employee claimed the superintendent's divisive tactics "rendered the administrative work environment toxic."
"She charges ahead so fast and so hard that she gets out 300 yards, turns around, and finds out nobody's there with her," says Bob Stockwell, an Atlanta-based consultant and founder of local education blog Financial Deconstruction. "She's a fast learner. But sometimes she doesn't build the level of support in the constituencies she needs to build to make sure that when she announces a decision, everybody's standing behind her, clapping."
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