Atlanta’s next education leader, Meria Carstarphen, sees herself as the visionary who can turn around urban public education, restore trust with parents and move the city’s school system past the stain of a cheating scandal.
Carstarphen, 44, was announced Thursday as the only finalist to become the superintendent of Atlanta Public Schools. She is currently the superintendent of the public school system in Austin, Texas, and the Atlanta school board plans a vote to hire her next month.
As an education reformer, Carstarphen said she believes in holding teachers and students accountable in order to get results. At the same time, she thinks she can unify a community that is frequently at odds with itself over the direction of public education.
“I can implement anything. I feel like I’ve had to do that,” she said during her introduction at Hope-Hill Elementary. “Be careful what you ask for, because it will be done.”
She said she will raise graduation rates, which stand at 59 percent, while also finding ways to prevent the disproportionate placement of black children and special education students in disciplinary programs.
She’ll replace Superintendent Erroll Davis, who plans to retire this summer after three years on the job.
Born and raised in Selma, Ala., she started her career teaching in the Selma middle school she attended. She later became superintendent in St. Paul, Minn., and was the chief accountability officer for the Washington, D.C. Public Schools.
“I’m not naive about what it takes to turn around an individual school or program or even an entire school district,” Carstarphen said in an exclusive interview with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution before her public introduction. “It will take some heavy lifting.”
School board Chairman Courtney English said that while Davis “pulled our children out of that burning building” left in the wake of widespread cheating, Carstarphen will be the next leader to bring Atlanta to worldwide prominence.
“Education is another opportunity for Atlanta to teach the world how to get it right,” English said.
But for all the praise she received Thursday, Carstarphen’s five years as Austin’s superintendent weren’t without controversy.
Board members criticized her leadership style. Community members objected to her proposals to close several schools and cut positions.
She sometimes bristled when school board members questioned her decisions, according to an article in The Austin American-Statesman, and she was accused of taking broad actions without first consulting teachers and parents.
Carstarphen forged a strong relationship with some in Austin’s black community, who came to see her as someone willing to listen and fight for inclusion.
In December, the Austin chapter of the NAACP gave her its highest award, the DeWitty/Overton Freedom Award, praising her for raising black test scores and graduation rates.
Graduation rates in Austin have soared to an all-time high at 82.5 percent, up from 74.3 percent in 2008, the year before she took over.
“She’s made it clear that all minority students are included,” said Nelson Linder, president of the Austin chapter of the NAACP. “She’s hired people who are black who were committed to excellence.”
Carstarphen did come in for some criticism, however, after two portions of a massive $892 million school bond measure were rejected by voters. The sections that were rejected would have poured some $403 million into construction to relieve crowding and augment academic programs.
Linder said the failure of portions of the bond measure shouldn’t be pinned on Carstarphen.
“There were folks in the business community who didn’t see her as business-friendly,” Linder said. “That wasn’t on her. There were those in the business community who worked against her.”
Carstarphen is being hired following a yearlong nationwide search for a leader who can improve academic performance and leave behind the stigma associated with a scandal in which investigators said 185 APS educators participated in changing students’ answers on standardized tests.
Thirteen of those educators, including former Superintendent Beverly Hall, now face trial.
While Davis was a transitional chief executive with a business background, Atlanta school board members now want a transformational educational leader.
After taking over for Hall, Davis focused on restoring integrity to public education. He fired most of the teachers and administrators allegedly involved with cheating, and he hasn’t shied away from controversy during battles over redistricting and school leadership.
Now Carstarphen will be responsible for completing the recovery and putting the city’s educational focus back in the classroom.
“She’s someone who has success in complex systems, who understood urban situations,” said Ann Cramer, the chairwoman of the Atlanta Superintendent Search Committee. “We went out and found the best, the absolute best.”
Carstarphen will work with a young and ambitious school board that was voted into office last fall.
The election replaced six out of nine board members, creating an opportunity for the board and the incoming superintendent to start fresh.
By Mark Niesse
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Staff writer Wayne Washington contributed to this article.