Atlanta Superintendent on Restoring Confidence, Focusing on Kids and Selfie Sticks

Meria Joel Carstarphen became superintendent of Atlanta Public Schools (APS) on the heels of a national cheating scandal in which 11 of 12 people in APS were convicted on charges including racketeering, with some serving time in prison.

Her two years have been a true test even within the intensely political world of urban superintendencies. But she’s been making her mark and moving the numbers. One tangible indication is a significant increase in the graduation rates, topping 71 percent for the graduating class of 2015—more than 12 percentage points higher than the previous class. But more importantly, Superintendent Carstarphen has been working to create a culture within APS that emphasizes the whole child.

Do you drink coffee? Tea? Sweet tea since we’re in the South?

I’m definitely a coffee drinker, lots of sugar, milk, super hot, and lots of it.

It’s been two years since you came to Atlanta from Austin. You’ve done a lot to turn around Atlanta Public Schools. You’ve implemented social-emotional programs and a turnaround strategy, and the data seems to say that there is progress.

The more difficult thing to measure is restoring the public’s confidence in APS. What was your strategy for doing that and how do you measure it?

We talk about it as “say-do index.” It’s not about what I’m doing, but what did people before me say they were going to do, but didn’t?

We had a big pay parity issue. People told us, “We were promised that they would fix our pay. We’re on the wrong pay scale.” So our say-do index on that was, “Okay, you’ve said there was a problem. I don’t really know about that problem.” We went and researched it, looked it up, and found that thousands of teachers and support staff were right.

APS had gotten to a stage where people didn’t acknowledge we had done wrong. But then there was an emerging behavior, especially with the new school board, that they acknowledged that people had done wrong even though they weren’t the doers.

You rebuild trust by owning other people’s mistakes and fixing them. You earn street cred, you win the hearts and minds of the people in the fight with you. When you say it in real time, you go do it. And I think that makes you the real deal. And so to measure that, there’s some things that are quantifiable, you name it.

But to me, I’m far more like, I feel like you got to feel it. The check that I get is when you are in the most random place possible, the dry cleaners, the grocery store, running in the park, right, and someone stops you and says, “I want you to know, you know, I’ve worked in APS for 25 years, and this is the best school opening we’ve had in my entire experience.”

You’re making significant changes here, but change isn’t always welcomed with open arms, right?

I wish I had more time to build those relationships with people so they could see me, see what I believe, see the agenda we’re trying to do, and that it is an agenda for children.

We have a framework for transformation, it starts first and foremost with a gorgeous vision about being a high-performing school district where students learn, teachers inspire, parents engage, and yes, the community trusts the system again.

It’s tied with a mission about college and career readiness that’s also in a caring culture of trust and collaboration. Because I can have all the strategies in the world in place, but if the culture, the people, the very people inside and out of the system, are still not focused on kids, are still involved in corruption, are still creating distractions for the district, then it’ll eat our strategy for breakfast every day.

We’re faced with potential high-stakes, super high-stakes state takeover district that I think has a lot of support in the State of Georgia. And so even though I believe for Atlanta we need a plan that’s right for us, I can’t say that I know what’s right for the entire State of Georgia.

That’s a difficult thing to say.

I think we won’t be able to show the evidence fast enough, I don’t have enough time. What I’m asking for is more time from the state to let our plans get in place. I do think they’ve been open-minded to that. They haven’t said, “You get a pass,” but they certainly are supportive of the work that we’ve done thus far, and that’s what we see.

We have far too many Black kids in high poverty and high need who don’t have the tools that we’ve said our communities have been providing and that our school system has been delivering. The evidence is not there. So the plan has to change.

I was looking at your pictures on Twitter and I’m like, how are they coming out so well? Do you own a selfie stick?

Oh yeah, I have to. One of my mentees gave me a selfie stick. And so it’s changed my life, it’s the highlight of my life. I love it.

I’ve been following your blog, but I especially appreciated the first week of school where you just give the rundown… of everywhere you’ve been going.

I know how superintendencies work, I know how politics work, I accepted a long time ago that no one ever really lets you stay in the job to do all the leadership work that you need to do. And that’s the sad side of the politics of public education.

But I will say that as an artist at heart who loves to document I do hope that one day someone looks back on what we were trying to do to get the turnaround started and that someone actually does study it and helps other districts across the country.

You’re from Selma. What did you think of the movie?

I loved it. As soon as it came out, I called everybody. I tortured everyone in my family. And we raised enough money to ensure that every kid could go to the movies if they brought their report card or their school ID, and they could go see the movie for free.

We had the directors and some of the actors come and talk to the students about the movie and what a unique place that time period had in American history, and the African-American and the American experience.

This post originally appeared on Education Post.

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