APS Superintendent Carstarphen interview with Northside Neighbor

August 8, 2014

This past Monday, Northside Neighbor published an interview with Atlanta Public School Superintendent Dr. Meria Carstarphen. The following are some excerpts and the entire article can be found here.

A campaign encouraging attendance on the first day of school…has been among her initial focuses. Carstarphen said data shows about 5,000 of the district’s more than 47,000 students miss the first day. The basic formula for success and graduating on time starts with good attendance, she said. 

“The work starting in early July has been overwhelmingly focused on the start of the school year and making sure we have some of the basic systems in place that were problematic last school year or in recent years,” Carstarphen said. “So we did a lot of work around our bus routes, scheduling, a lot of the things that most districts take for granted, but for APS, it has been somewhat troublesome for a few years.” …the new superintendent said she is driven by a passion for seeing students achieve.

“[Many urban education] environments are very typically adult-centric, focused on adult issues [and] tied into deep politics that distract us from our core purpose,” Carstarphen said. “My leadership is very straightforward. It’s led by instruction and education for children. That is a foreign concept in environments like this.”

She said the three biggest challenges facing the district, of which she would like to focus improvement, are student success, human resources and operational and internal systems. “

We really want to be able to continue to build on the starting momentum on increasing the graduation rates and reducing our dropout rates,” Carstarphen said, referring to the district’s 59 percent graduation rate.

“I think a big part of our work is really going to be about human resources really getting the right people — high-quality people — to stay and continue with APS [and recruiting] others to take on the jobs and the needs of the district moving forward,” Carstarphen said.

Hopefully we will get an update on the impact of the Day One: Be There campaign at the upcoming Board meeting and then also learn what the objective will be for the student attendance campaign Carstarphen has rolled out. As noted in a prior post, in Austin student attendance was 90% or better for at least two years and possible this past year as well.

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Dr. Meria Carstarphen Q&A in Atlanta Magazine

August 8, 2014

Atlanta Public School Superintendent Dr. Meria Carstarphen answered a series of questions for the Atlanta Magazine. Among the topics discussed were her accomplishments in Austin, high stakes testing, changes she wants to make in APS and the influence of the business community.

The following are some excerpts, but please read the whole thing here:

On high stakes testing –  [In Austin] We were no longer focused on getting students to regurgitate answers on the state assessment, but we focused on whole-child development; social and emotional learning;…While testing was important and had high-stakes consequences, the test should still be the afterthought.

On educational outcomes in Austin – Outcomes were great. We had an all-time high graduation rate. The last official count was 82.5 percent, but I am certain that as we finish out the 2013 numbers, it will be at least 84 percent. The dropout rate will also be at an all-time low.

For two consecutive years… high school attendance topped 90 percent. That was a big first for the district … We can’t teach the students if they’re not in class.

On organizational changes – I’m going to have to make some aggressive changes in organization …we still don’t have an accountability, compliance, and testing office to monitor what we’re doing. That will be established.

 Other functions need to be put in places where people “own” the systems. The student data system and special education…How do we make sure that instead of blaming and pointing fingers, we get people the support they need?

…we have to make some core organizational changes that will allow us to actually restart in some areas.

On the influence of the business community – Your position or influence won’t matter. There’s only one group that I feel like I answer to, and that’s the children of Atlanta. At the end of the day, my decision-making is always about them.

I will assume that her accomplishments in Austin – including the improved graduation rates and attendance – will become the longer term objectives for APS. It is also important to understand what the starting point is – we should know in the next couple of months as many academic and other metrics  will be published as part of the Balanced Scorecard.

There is no question that Carstarphen has her work cut out for her and, as she noted in the article, there will be some pain as the organization undergoes structural and cultural changes. But if she can attain the targets she achieved in Austin over the next several years, the pain will soon be forgotten.

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Part 3 – Three opinion pieces in the AJC – Meria Carstarphen, Ed Johnson and Maureen Downey

August 2, 2014

The Atlanta Journal Constitution published three opinion pieces today and the authors include Atlanta Public School Superintendent Meria Carstarphen, business consultant and former Board of Education candidate Ed Johnson and AJC Get Schooled blog author Maureen Downey. All three are a must read in their entirety as APS is about to start a new school year this coming Monday, August 4th.

The following is part three of a three part series (see part 1 here and part 2 here) and contains some excerpts from Maureen Downey’s article titled “A new chapter for APS” (behind pay wall):

While it matters what Carstarphen does, it matters more what she enables her principals and teachers to do.

Her job is more than recruiting top principals and teachers; she has to ensure they’re trained to succeed in urban classrooms by providing them with the ongoing support necessary to deal with the challenges.

Carstarphen’s choice for her deputy, David Jernigan, can help. Jernigan comes to APS from KIPP Metro Atlanta where he oversaw eight KIPP schools… KIPP relies on strong school leaders who are carefully selected, trained and then freed to direct, manage and staff their campuses.

It’s essential the school board, parents and the business community recognize that improvements will not come easily or quickly… As Stanford education emeritus professor Larry Cuban has said, “Turning around a failing company or a school district is no work for sprinters, it is marathoners who refashion the company and district into successes.”

Atlanta educates a lot of poor children. Although 76 percent of APS students are on free and reduced lunch, the district doesn’t have an impressive track record with low-income students….

… 13 of Atlanta’s 58 elementary schools ranked among the bottom 5 percent in Georgia…Clayton County enrolls the same number of students as Atlanta and has even greater poverty. Yet, only two of Clayton’s 39 elementary schools were in the bottom 5 percent.

Carstarphen has to get her most effective teachers into her least successful schools….And she has to untangle the central office thicket that provides camouflage for needless bureaucracy. She has to either find or develop more principals in the mold of Stephanie Johnson at Maynard Jackson High School and Betsy Bockman at Inman Middle.

If Carstarphen can do all that, the Atlanta school board won’t be alone in singing her praises.

While the prior two posts on the opinions of Carstarphen and Johnson focused on building on existing APS strengths, Downey gets to the core issue – building a strong team of teachers and in-school leaders who will be responsible for achieving transformational results. As Downey notes, some gems already exist within the system and the new leadership has a track record of success.

My sense is that Ed Johnson’s prescription to Carstarphen of providing “servant leadership” that turns the leadership pyramid upside down with student educational outcomes at the top of the hierarchy is the right idea. Carstarphen seems committed to doing this – will she and her team be able to deliver?

My bet is that she can – but she will have to transform a system that has been focused on what it could “not do” versus a system that “can do and will do”.

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Three opinion pieces in the AJC – Meria Carstarphen, Ed Johnson and Maureen Downey – Part 1

August 2, 2014

The Atlanta Journal Constitution published three opinion pieces today and the authors include Atlanta Public School Superintendent Meria Carstarphen, business consultant and former Board of Education candidate Ed Johnson and AJC Get Schooled blog author Maureen Downey.

All three are a must read in their entirety as APS is about to start a new school year this coming Monday, August 4th.

Cartarphen HeadshotThe following is part one of a three-part series and contains some excerpts from Superintendent Carstarphen opinion piece titled “Building on strengths to better APS” (behind pay wall):

APS has been a system where pockets of academic excellence exist coupled with persistent challenges in the graduation and dropout rates.

How do we change our organizational culture so that the needs of children are the top priority? How do we address everyone’s hopes, fears and expectations about this system? How do we bring out the best in ourselves as adults so that we can bring out the best in our students?

In APS, we’re going to move from focusing on what’s wrong to what’s strong. Our goal is to become a culture where students and staff are engaged, supported and encouraged. This strength-based approach transitions from a culture of testing — which can be punitive and narrowly focused on weaknesses — to one that emphasizes the abilities and interests of the whole child.

…across APS this year, we will build an academic and human resource success plan driven by our strengths.

One of our emerging strengths is that we have been able to inspire, support and graduate more students, many of whom are still the first in their families to graduate from high school..

…we continue to implement a 30-60-90 day action plan to attack a number of challenges — big and small — from getting all classrooms cleaned and teachers and principals hired to improving our internal operational systems.

…Approximately 5,000 of our students do not show up or are not in class receiving instruction on Day One. A day without instruction might as well be a day absent, and research tells us that absences — as few as one or two a month — add up to hurt achievement.

…the job of educating all students in APS is a heavy lift, but I’m encouraged by the strength I’ve seen throughout Atlanta. As a school community, if we work together to get into good trouble and build on our strengths, we will overcome the most insurmountable challenges. We will become a strong system of strong schools with strong students.

The focus on strengths reminds me of a post I did last summer at the beginning of the Board of Education election titled “A Simple Question for BOE Candidates” in which I asked the question, What does the Atlanta Public School system do really well? An excerpt from that post,

I was surprised at how difficult the candidates and incumbents found this question to be. While they tend to be focused on what is wrong, knowing what is working in APS is also extremely important.


… If you know what is working… resources can be directed to areas of greater need. Additionally, if APS is performing a function very well, then the organization can begin considering how to leverage the strength and extend it into others areas of the organization.

It appears that Carstarphen is looking for and finding the strengths in APS which she can build on to achieve a higher level of success. In my opinion, she is on the right track.

[Note – I will publish a review of the other two opinion pieces published by the AJC in upcoming posts and the “Round-Up of APS Headlines from the Past Week” will come after that.]

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Carstarphen announces “Day One: Be There” campaign – and more

July 16, 2014

Atlanta Public School Superintendent Carstarphen, in her prepared remarks, announced a campaign to improve attendance and to get students enrolled and attending the first day of school. Talk Up APS reported APS,

…launched a city-wide attendance campaign during the July Board of Education meeting encouraging parents and students to ‘be there’ for the first day of school, August 4, 2014.

 “We’re excited about a message we want students and families to hear loudly and clearly – Day One: Be There.  August 4 is the first day of school in Atlanta Public Schools, and we need every student to be there on the first day and every day after that,” said the superintendent.  “We want the world to know that August 4 is not only the first day of school; it’s the first day of instruction.”

The campaign seeks to break the myth that missing the first day or only a few days of school is normal and doesn’t impact academic achievement.

 “We’re going to use every neighborhood, partnership and communications channel at our disposal to spread the word about the importance of the first day and every day of school,” said the superintendent.

A number of groups are joining in the effort to get students enrolled and prepared for the first day including the Morehouse School of Medicine( which will provide parents with the ability to register and immunize their children), Chick-fil-A, Dollar General, the Georgia Aquarium, Macy’s, Six Flags and Stone Mountain Park to support the campaign. A website has been set up to provide a complete list of back to school activities, registration time periods and other information regarding the registration process.

In addition, Carstarphen also indicated that the following activities and actions not related to Day One were underway, including,

  • The appointment of an outsourced General Counsel and a review of the Legal Department with the objective of saving at least $1 million (see more here).
  • All 22 principal vacancies have been filled using an improved selection process.
  • An Executive Director for High Schools has been appointed to support the principals.
  • The process of developing the standards for evaluating the superintendent is underway.
  • Several central office departments are under review including the Legal Department, the Communications Department, the Organizational Advancement Department, the Testing and Compliance Department and she indicated there would be others as well.
  • Several key roles remain open and any current or new employees must understand that all conversations must be about “children first”.
  • Working under a “30, 60, 90 day entry plan” to make sure that all APS leadership – including senior staff, in-school leaders and other departmental leaders – understands the detailed steps that will be necessary to change the culture in APS and drive change through the system.
  • As of today, more than 560 teachers have been hired of which 250 will be new to the teaching profession. There are still approximately 60 teaching positions open.
  • Central staff and principals will be meeting on a regular basis to work out any issues or problems to make sure that the schools are receiving the support they need.

Carstarphen then reemphasized the need to get the kids in school on Day One – “we can’t teach them unless they are in front of a teacher”. Over 5,000 children are not in class on Day One and the campaign is focused on reducing this to get the school year off to a good start.

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Excellent review of new APS Superintendent Meria Carstarphen

July 11, 2014

Max Blau at Creative Loafing published an extensive review on the new APS Superintendent Dr. Meria J. Carstarphen. The piece is titled “Picking up the pieces of Atlanta Public Schools – Can new superintendent Meria Carstarphen save the troubled school system?

The following are some extracts, but please take the time to read the whole thing.

… 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.

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.

Overall, she received high marks from school board members for her work [as superintendent of St. Paul school district]. 

Carstarphen acknowledges that not everyone will agree with her decision-making given the wide-ranging interests of parents, activists, and elected officials involved in public schools. Regarding criticisms about her leadership style, she refers to her “extraordinary” track record in St. Paul and Austin as proof that her approach has helped all students — not just specific groups of children — receive a better education.

“I work every day for kids. If you’re a ‘me’ kind of adult, you’re going to have tension and conflict with me. I get it, I’m going to try to understand, but I’m going to bring it back to [the question]: How does this move the agenda forward for kids? Not just your kids; but black kids, poor kids, second language learners, special education kids.”

Carstarphen’s supporters and opponents disagree on most points, except for one: that APS’ newest leader has undeniable charisma. The 44-year-old superintendent has a rare touch that can disarm both officials and students.

As Carstarphen solidifies her cabinet, she’ll look to improve the quality of APS employees, refine the academic curriculum taught to students, and make internal operations more efficient. She wants to attract talented leaders ranging from principals to bus drivers, all who fit into her long-term APS strategy.

“Our biggest challenge may be the culture itself,” she says. “To build hope in our organization [we need] people to feel like they’re welcome, respected, and engaged in the school experience.” The superintendent stresses her commitment to being accessible, providing more direct support, and offering greater autonomy to staffers. 

It’s expected that Carstarphen will run a more efficient operation that spends less on administrative costs. Atlanta currently devotes … approximately 11 percent of its …budget, to pay for central office and general administrative expenses. In contrast, AISD only spends an estimated 2.5 percent of its budget on central office costs. Substantial changes are likely to happen in a central office described by sources as a bloated, dysfunctional bureaucracy of more than 300 employees.

Administrative belt-tightening comes with its own set of challenges and could lead to layoffs. But those kinds of fiscal moves would free up cash to be reinvested back into classrooms. With that money, Carstarphen could place more resources into developing academic programs that focus on what she refers to as the “bookends of education” — narrowing early childhood achievement gaps and making sure more students graduate from high school.

The superintendent says that early childhood development will be a major focus during her first days on the job. In the short term, she says that means bolstering current kindergarten and pre-K programs — the latter only being available on a lottery basis due to limited seats. …”We want to be sure we’re doing everything we can to eliminate the achievement gaps before they start,”

“If they come to school, they go to class and do their homework; it’s a very simple formula,” she said during her speech.

As I noted above, the article is lengthy and is full of information on Carstarphen’s background, management philosophy and future initiatives for APS. Also, there are numerous quotes from a wide variety of sources, including:

  • Board members – Leslie Grant, Cynthia Briscoe Brown, Matt Westmoreland and Courtney English
  • Atlanta parents – Paul Benson and Dawn Brockington-Shaw
  • Other Atlanta residents – Jarod Apperson, Verdaillia Turner, Robert Stockwell and retired Superintendent Davis

Go take a look and see what your neighbors are saying about APS’ new leader.

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APS Superintendent Carstarphen’s first day on the job – “expectations are high and time is short”

July 8, 2014

Cartarphen HeadshotThe AJC reported on Dr. Meria Carstarphen’s first day on the job as superintendent of the Atlanta Public Schools. Carstarphen was sworn in, met with administrative staff and visited Therrell High School.

As she assumes her duties, the AJC reports,

She faces a host of challenges including raising graduation rates that hover at 59 percent, repairing the image of a school system still tainted by the stigma of a test-cheating scandal and getting the district’s often inefficient bureaucracy to work better for schools.

School starts in one month, and some Atlanta parents, residents and staff are impatient to see evidence of change under a new administration. She’s been asked to improve everything from test scores and special education services to school meals and bus routes. And she faces intense scrutiny throughout the district and the region.

As she starts, Carstarphen will emphasize student attendance,

Carstarphen says she’s already begun making changes to how the district operates. Among the differences Carstarphen says parents and students will see by the time school starts Aug. 4 is an emphasis on attendance. The district will be pushing out the message that attendance for students and staff from Day 1 is essential, she said.

“It’s one of those common-sense approaches to how to we improve the experience in school,” she said. “We need people to turn up on the first day of school and be ready and excited.”

Over the last two months, Carstarphen has led a transition team to organize her administration and develop plans for the school system. As part of the transition, Carstarphen was deeply involved in selecting the 23 new school principals and is reconsidering the academy structure,

Carstarphen says she’s already changed the principal selection process to include more staff input and plans to tweak it more with the goal of recruiting top principals as early as the fall.

She has started to examine where the district should move away from an earlier high school redesign that split Atlanta high schools into individual academies. Last fall, the APS board voted to ditch the idea of independent theme-based schools on a single campus at Washington High School. This year, the three theme-based academies at Therrell will be united under a single principal.

Carstarphen will also focus her efforts on the large and often unresponsive central bureaucracy,

And Carstarphen has begun reorganizing APS’ central office to make the district’s expensive bureaucracy more functional and do a better job of supporting schools. She says she plans to create a “sea change” in the district’s culture to put children first.

“I do think people understand that,” she said. “And if they aren’t up to making that transition they really don’t have a place on the APS team anymore.”

She has shown in the past in both Austin and St. Paul, where she also served as superintendent, that she hits the ground running and begins making changes quickly.

This could be a very interesting summer as Carstarphen begins to put her mark on APS.

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