State of the District 001 Meria Carstarphen

Atlanta Public Schools Superintendent Meria Carstarphen, decked out in sunglasses, a leather jacket and a T-shirt with event’s theme ‘APS Rocks’ stitched across the front, speaks during her annual State of the District Address Oct. 5 at the new Walden Athletic Complex in downtown Atlanta.

As Meria Carstarphen, Ed.D., approaches her sixth year as superintendent of Atlanta Public Schools, she said she’s happy with the progress the district has made since coming on board in 2014.

But Carstarphen, whose sixth year begins Aug. 12 when school starts, said the district still has strides to make before achieving her goals.

“I know we don’t get it right all the time, and we’re nowhere near the finish line and I’m not doing a victory lap,” she said. “But if we continue to take care of people, we … will get there. The more stable we are and the more consistent we are, the community will over time come along, too.”

In an interview with the Neighbor, Carstarphen looked back on the 2018-19 academic year and ahead to 2018-19.

Safety and security

Safety and security remain a top priority for the district due to school shootings taking place across the country, and Carstarphen said the state is not only providing funding for teacher raises but also is providing $30,000 per school for safety/security upgrades.

“The governor wanted to be clear on that and give us more local control,” she said. “Basically we can use those funds as we please, targeting areas where you might have vulnerabilities for safety. They talk about video cameras, notifications and systems. In addition to what the governor did, we’ve outfitted our police officers with body-worn cameras and we’re learning from that. If there’s any kind of incident, we have the guidance to see what’s going on. It’s up close with the officer involved. That’s a good protection (measure) for everyone.”

Carstarphen said the district about 80 officers on its police force and 70 are being fitted with body cameras.

Progress on testing

The superintendent said the district continues to make strides on its graduation rate and standardized test scores. Its graduation rate for 2018 was 79.9%, an all-time high but still below the state average of 81.6% and other local school districts’ rates. However, the 2018 rate was a 20.8% improvement over 2014, the year Carstarphen arrived.

“We track the kids in poverty, (plus) African American, Hispanic, special-needs kids. Even those who are victims of the (CRCT) cheating scandal are getting a lift,” she said. “There are about 3,000 (students) from 10 years ago that felt the effects of all the testing irregularities and the scandal itself. Since that time, to today, there are probably 2,000 then when I started and 800 now.”

Carstarphen said the district has provided tutoring and wraparound services for those students and used Target 2021, Georgia State University’s external analysis of the district’s work to aid those students, to track their progress.

“When I started at (the district), in 2014 no one could tell me who they are,” she said of the students victimized. “… We’re going to see every kid through until they graduate.”

Speaking of graduation, Carstarphen said this year’s seniors were awarded $154 million in scholarships, an increase of $11 million over 2018. She added this year’s graduates included students who completed 10,222 credits in Advanced Placement, International Baccalaureate and dual-enrollment classes, an increase of 1,300 over 2018 and nearly twice as many as the class of 2015.

The dual-enrollment program, in partnership with Atlanta Technical College, allows students to graduate high school not only with a diploma but also an associate’s degree.

Regarding the College and Career Ready Performance Index (CCRPI), the district’s 2017-18 score of 73.4% was 3.2 points below the state average. As for the Georgia Milestones test, the district did not lead any of the other local school districts (Cobb, DeKalb and Fulton counties) in the 10 high school subjects included in the test.

But Carstarphen the district achieved its highest gains to date in the percentage of students who scored proficient and above across all subjects on the tests. Also, compared to the state, the district made progress in narrowing the performance gap in all four end-of-grade subjects.

Culture changes

The superintendent said the district has made progress in changing its culture for the better but still has a long way to go.

“Culture is just so important,” she said. “We really want to achieve our vision for the district. Being a high-performing district is important, and that’s part of that aspiration. We want it to be a place where kids love to learn, educators inspire, parents engage and the community trusts the system again.”

One way Carstarphen is addressing the district’s culture is a new customer engagement platform that gives employees a quick way to submit complaints or feedback and funnels the info to its leaders in a quick way.

“If someone calls or emails or submits something online through social media, it falls into one bucket so it trends the feedback and we know the source of the feedback and get back to help that is more transparent so it allows us to target an issue,” she said. “We’re doing a lot around safety (with) this.”

Another way the district is addressing culture is developing a new five-year strategic plan, since the current one ends at the close of the 2019-20 academic year.

“We want to be more clear about what to expect, what to look for and how we’re defining excellence will do a better job of matching leaders to schools and philosophies about how to do the work. … (There is a) vision for excellence and profile of excellence for the student.”

Though the district continues to build new schools or redevelop current ones, no Buckhead schools are part of the group that will be built or rebuilt during the 2019-20 school year because most have been constructed under that program in recent years.

The 2018-19 academic year ended May 24 and the first day of school is Aug. 12, two days after the district’s annual Back-to-School Bash at the Georgia World Congress Center in downtown Atlanta.

“With culture, the systems have to run right,” Carstarphen said. “If you say you’re going to do something, you’ve got to do it. … Culture starts with the way you begin and end a school year. We begin with the Back-to-School Bash, and that’s one of the best things (the district) has done.”

Carstarphen said one example of the progress made in changing the district’s culture is staff members are absent or sick less often than when she started there. Another is Burgess-Peterson Academy’s Tracey Pendley was named Georgia Teacher of the Year, the first time the district has won the award in nearly 40 years.

“I just feel like there’s more mojo across the district,” Carstarphen said.

District 4 school board member Nancy Meister, who represents Buckhead, said she’s been pleased with the job Carstarphen has done.

“This is my third term and 10th year on the (board),” Meister said. “I have seen incredible gains in ALL areas including academic programs, talent management, system and resources, and culture. The district, under Dr. Carstarphen’s leadership has, and continues to be transformed.

“There has been a definite positive, motivating and invigorating change in the culture from the school house to the central office over her tenure. The city of Atlanta is fortunate to have such a dedicated leader who puts children first with every decision that is made.”

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