Atlanta Public Schools (APS) has made strides since Meria Carstarphen took over as superintendent in 2014.
For the third year in a row, the district has seen growth in the percentage of students scoring proficient on most state tests. Its graduation rate is almost 80% — close to Georgia’s statewide 81.6% rate and significantly higher than 2012 when it was 50.8%. And for the first time since 1981, an Atlanta educator has been named Georgia Teacher of the Year.
But those indicators of progress may not be enough for Carstarphen to keep her job. In recent months, support for keeping her in Atlanta has been building. But observers have been speculating over whether the school board plans to renew her contract, which expires at the end of June.
“All the stuff that one would generally look at, all of those signs continue to be strong,” said Courtney English, who served eight years on the board. “Knowing how hard it is to find a good leader … I don’t know why they are considering making that kind of decision.”
Carstarphen, who left a job as superintendent of the Austin Independent School District in Texas to take the position in APS, has worked to form partnerships with outside organizations and foundations to support turnaround efforts and additional support for students, such as after-school programs. But past reports, from her years as superintendent of the St. Paul Public Schools in Minnesota, point to a tough management style that hurt morale.
“Carstarphen came to Atlanta after the widespread cheating scandal under the tenure of the late Beverly Hall – a huge embarrassment for Atlanta,” longtime Atlanta business journalist Maria Saporta wrote in a commentary advocating that the board renew the superintendent’s contract. “As soon as she arrived, Carstarphen and the APS board instituted a strong ethics policy to make sure history would never be repeated.”
She has been outspoken on development issues, arguing that tax incentives to lure projects to the city are taking money away from schools.
"There is always room for improvement and I don't agree with everything she does, but she is incredibly smart and hard working," said Tom Tidwell, a charter school parent who took the seat on the Fulton County Development Authority that Carstarphen held for about six months. "It is impossible to make everyone happy, so there will always be people who want change, but I think continuity is important, especially in education and especially in Atlanta after what we went through with (former superintendent) Beverly Hall."
Improving teacher quality and retention has been one of the district's priorities.
“In terms of teacher preparation, I see the district is committed to that,” said Gwendolyn Benson, the associate dean for faculty development and partnerships in Georgia State University’s (GSU) College of Education and Human Development. Benson works with the district on a teacher residency program and said APS designated a liaison to work with GSU. “That helped keep the relationship strong.”
The district has focused on reaching pay parity for teachers with the surrounding metro districts and renovating schools to make them more attractive places to work, said Angela King Smith, the district’s chief engagement officer. In 2013-14, there were 243 teacher vacancies on the first day of school. This year, there were 10, Smith said.
APS also participates in the university’s principal mentoring work, and Benson praised Carstarphen for supporting a successful early college program at Carver High School.
“I do know that student achievement has improved, and principal leadership has changed for the better because of Dr. Carstarphen,” Benson said.
In 2014, Smith said the district had to hire 24 new principals, and this year only four had to be hired.
???????? #JacksonCluster‼️Excited to see the ???????? community engagement as we build the next strategic plan! Thank you for your input and for coming out in the rain! ☔️ @APSStrategy @JoinTeamAPS pic.twitter.com/BVRG4J5BDj— Meria Carstarphen (@CarstarphenMJ) August 27, 2019
Concerns over charter schools
But the superintendent’s decisions to consolidate some schools and turn some over to charter management organizations (CMOs) as “partnership schools” have been controversial, with critics calling them as a “quick fix.” In a response to an Atlanta teachers group, Ed Johnson, an opponent of charter schools and a candidate for an open seat on the board called charters "a drain on our public schools, much like a sink drain. And much like water that disappears down the sink drain, our public schools will disappear down the charter schools drain, unless we plug the drain."
But English defends the work with CMOs, saying the partnership schools “function as zoned neighborhood schools” and the charter operators are expected to “run the school just like every other principal has to do.”
Still, there are large achievement gaps between white and black students in the predominantly black school district, and according to a report from the Annie E. Casey Foundation, 80% of the city’s black children live in communities with high poverty, compared to 6% of white children.
“There’s no teaching strategy for any of that,” English said. “There’s no teaching strategy for hunger. There’s no teaching strategy for homelessness.”
'A guiding tool'
The district is also in the middle of a series of community meetings to gather input as part of a strategic planning process. After four meetings so far, Smith said the district has been somewhat surprised at the turnout, which has averaged about 100 per session, even in communities where enrollment is declining.
“I think it’s because they realize that the strategic plan is a guiding tool for us,” she said. “We use it to guide all of our work and our decisions. People understand it’s important.”
Earlier this year, the district was set to move forward with a plan to define an “excellent school” and rate schools against that standard. But those concerned about the growth of charter schools were leery of the plan.
In March, the board only approved the Vision of Excellence, which, as part of the strategic plan, will “clarify the common elements of an excellent school that we want to ensure come to life in all schools, for all kids, in APS,” according to the district website.
Smith said at this point there are no plans to create a framework for grading the schools, and that discussions at the community meetings have focused on how to help parents better use the data available from the state to understand how their schools are performing. There are a few data points, she noted, that could be included, such as mobility rates, teacher and principal retention information, and students' performance at the postsecondary level.
She added leaders are now in the process of examining which charter, partner and traditional schools are having success at narrowing gaps between students.
“What things need to be lifted from the various schools where they have seen success closing significant gaps?” Smith asked. “What are they doing, and what can be learned?”