Atlanta hopes to fend off state takeover by jump-starting the improvement of those schools, but Superintendent Meria Carstarphen didn't pretend a turnaround of that magnitude would be easy or that she's made great strides after only one year leading APS.
"I only got one year to fix what is arguably a 30-year problem," she told parents. Her inaugural year was spent stamping out fires, she said, including a chaotic payroll system. She also focused on identifying and helping students damaged by the infamous APS test cheating scandal.
"At the end of the day, I can tell you this -- we went through and found every single child, all 4,000 of them still in APS who need remediation and support from this school system. No one knew them by name. No one could tell me where they were. No one could tell me what happened to them. What resources did they get? Did it even make a difference?"
Aided by grants for a half-million dollar review of the district by the Boston Consulting Group that included surveys, focus groups and interviews, Carstarsphen said she is now honing in on strategies. She did not minimize the hurdles.
"I don’t know why as a community we don’t understand that Atlanta Public Schools is effectively broken. We have the lion’s share of every problem you can possibly imagine in urban public schools. But I am here. This is my community," she said. "They are my babies and my children and I expect of myself to do a good job with or without the support of anyone else. I believe in Atlanta. I believe in Atlanta Public Schools. I have met this staff. I know our children are beautiful and can deliver if we hold them to the right expectations."
Among the problems identified by the consultants: uneven instructional quality across APS, a weak leadership pipeline and the unmet social needs of at-risk students. "We don’t have the strategy completely finished yet, but what we are hearing from people and what we learned from the research is pretty clear: that APS lacks, and I mean lacks consistent high-quality instruction ...there’s a need to close these serious achievement gaps and provide additional instructional support," she said.
Carstarphen said APS needs principals with track records of improving or turning around low performing schools. While the district has attracted some great principals, she worries about burning them out. "Once we get them here, we've got to care and feed them so they can stay strong and not get burned out in these tough situations."
While there are benefits to making the school day or school year longer, Carstarphen cautioned, "Unless you are improving the quality of what is happening, just keeping them in school longer and giving them bad instruction are not necessarily going to move things faster."
And even quality instruction falters if students do not come to school with the ability to be engaged. After ticking off all the challenges facing kids, from poverty to mental health to poor nutrition, Carstarshen said, "What our families need Atlanta Public Schools to do is to be a significant high-quality service provider, and we can hardly teach them to read, much less do all these other things."
That's why it will be essential for city services and the community to step up, she said.
"I didn’t break it," she told parents. "Some of you all didn’t break it, and probably most of you all didn’t break it, but it is our problem to fix."
Despite all the challenges the children bring to the classroom, Carstarphen cited an even bigger challenge for APS. "Culture is the biggest challenge for Atlanta Public Schools. Every great strategy we have gets eaten for breakfast because of the culture sometimes."