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Posted: 5:42 p.m. Monday, July 7, 2014

New Atlanta school chief: Stop slapping hands of employees and start joining hands with them 

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Meria Carstarphen begins tenure at Atlanta Public Schools
July 7, 2014 - Atlanta - Meria Carstarphen (right) and principal Shelly Powell (left) met briefly with the summer planning team at Daniel McLaughlin Therrell High School. The first day mood was jovial. Monday was new Atlanta Public Superintendent Meria Carstarphen’s first official day on the job, which started with a staff meeting at APS offices and included a visit to Daniel McLaughlin Therrell High School. BOB ANDRES / BANDRES@AJC.COM

By Maureen Downey

Etienne R. LeGrand is an education strategist and writer in Atlanta. She offers some perspective and some advice for new Atlanta Public Schools Superintendent Meria Carstarphen, who officially began her job today.

By Etienne R. LeGrand

Errol Davis, interim superintendent of the Atlanta Public Schools, has left the district building for the last time.  His embattled tenure offers a cautionary note for incoming superintendent Dr. Merla Carstarphen about the necessity of selling a vision and taking people with you in its pursuit, instead of lamenting that they are in your way. 

 Davis has often said that his major job challenge, and a source of great personal frustration, was the time he was required to spend dealing with issues away from the classroom.  In a recent interview with The Atlanta Journal and Constitution, he noted, "I can't help children when I'm working on adult issues, when I'm trying to keep a board from being removed by the governor, while I'm trying to keep a board not hauled into court by the attorney general, while I'm trying to ferret out unethical teachers and principals.” 

Someone should tell him there is no ‘I” in “we,” and that the issues he faced away from the classrooms have everything to do with what happens inside them. The investment of time, energy and resources that Davis and his staff spent on the three percent of employees who participated in the scandal may have succeeded in ridding the district of its cheaters and signaling a zero tolerance for cheating, but it concurrently reinforced the toxicity and dysfunction that plague the district and prevent Atlanta’s children from getting the education they need and deserve.

 A toxic culture that enabled cheating and left employees feeling disrespected, intimidated and fearful of their leaders, formed the backdrop against which Davis stepped into his role three years ago. Roughly 180 educators were implicated in the scandal. People in and outside of the district understandably felt embarrassed; they had been bamboozled into thinking Atlanta’s children were better off only to learn they were not. 

Davis charged ahead to clean up the district by testifying at employee administrative hearings, requiring that all employees participate in ethics training, and firing teachers and administrators who had even the smallest connection to the cheating scandal.

In his pursuit of zero tolerance, he — perhaps unintentionally — signaled his distrust of school district employees, and a lack of confidence in their capability to contribute, even as he needed them on his side to help the children he wanted to help.  Marked with a scarlet letter simply because they happened to work for the district at the time the cheating occurred, employees’ morale suffered even more. You don’t have to be a rocket scientist to see the straight line from low employee morale to the subsequent loss of energy, enthusiasm, and productivity critical to the challenging jobs of teaching and leading schools.

Let me be clear — I believe Davis’ decision to emphasize integrity and honesty as key district values that can be used to guide employees’ behaviors, decisions, and interactions was a great thing. But I also hoped he would be do more to model other values, such as quality, collaboration, believing in all people, and recognition. Had he done so, and invited others to join him, he might have gone some distance to creating a district culture more capable of enabling and sustaining greater performance for all kids long after he was gone.

Davis’ key failure was his inability to recognize the necessity of getting people on his side. He made too little effort to rally the troops by rebuilding trust and shoring up confidence among employees, parents, and neighbors about a future beyond cheating, even if he didn’t know with certainty how it would all turn out. Sadly, he overlooked the need to inspire and sell hope about a new, better day when greater teaching and learning would be the norm at APS.

Had Davis been as focused during his tenure on describing how the organization would work together to help children learn as he was on what it would do to help children learn, Dr. Carstarphen might have a stronger foundation on which to build even greater rewards for more students. By all means, get rid of the bad apples. Then, quickly turn everyone’s attention to the future based on a shared goal, help them understand the challenges to be met on the way, and get them to commit to the plan.  Invite everyone to work together with you and hold everyone accountable for success. 

Davis saw working on adult issues as a problem. I hate to say it, but that was his problem. Had he seen adults as essential to his success and used his immeasurable skills to unleash their talents and desire to make a difference, he might have been less frustrated and helped more kids.

Maureen Downey

About Maureen Downey

Maureen Downey is a longtime reporter for the AJC where she has written editorials and opinion pieces about local, state and federal education policy for 12 years.

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