A guest columnist writes: “In hiring Carstarphen despite the flashing red warning lights about her take-no-prisoners leadership style, the school board prioritized securing a leader whom it believed would get the train back on track for Atlanta’s kids and remove the stink from the district’s brand.”
Photo: Bob Andres/robert.andres@ajc.com
Photo: Bob Andres/robert.andres@ajc.com

Meria Carstarphen got APS back on track. Who should take over wheel? 

Advocate says next leader ought to bring stronger collaborative skills

In its search for a new school chief to replace Meria Carstarphen, what should be the priorities of the Atlanta school board?

Etienne R. LeGrand, who has written in the past on this blog about leadership and achievement, offers her view today in a guest column. LeGrand is CEO of Vivify Performance and helps school districts develop cultures that promote learning. She is a longtime advocate of public education. 

By Etienne R. LeGrand 

The Atlanta school board’s recent decision not to extend Superintendent Meria Carstarphen’s contract came as an unpleasant surprise to many residents. For the most part, Dr. Carstarphen did what she was hired to do, raising graduation rates, reducing teacher turnover and improving morale, though persistent achievement gaps remain. But in sifting through the tea leaves of what is publicly known, it could be that the way she did her job is what landed her under the school bus she drove and out of the job she loved. 

Carstarphen is charismatic and charming, as long as you don’t disagree with her or piss her off. And as charming as she can be, she is also reported to not suffer fools easily, including board members who she’s bumped heads with. 

Carstarphen’s difficult relationships with her boards was well known at the time APS hired her. Background checks gave APS a heads up that she could be prickly and bruise egos. 

Of course, women get a bad rap for being assertive, decisive and passionate. Would these same traits be less scrutinized and more tolerated in a man? School board members will have a chance to consider this question as they begin to search for a new superintendent next month.  

In hiring Carstarphen despite the flashing red warning lights about her take-no-prisoners leadership style, the school board prioritized securing a leader whom it believed would get the train back on track for Atlanta’s kids and remove the stink from the district’s brand. Given the significant reputational damage from the cheating scandal, it’s understandable the board might prioritize someone with proven skills to devise and execute strategic and structural shifts while underestimating the possibility of harm caused by those flashing red warning lights. 

The board is being widely criticized given the public’s perception that Carstarphen was meeting or exceeding the expectations of her role. The board’s intention to be discreet about her shortcomings has backfired. Badly fumbled messaging about a desire for more collaboration and engagement are being suspiciously received and may reopen the chasm of distrust between the district and the Atlanta community that Carstarphen’s efforts did much to close. 

Etienne R. LeGrand

The idea of greater collaboration and engagement between the superintendent and board may sound to some like politics as usual, or even a ruse. But teamwork and mutual support — the essence of collaborating — are not “feel-good, gobbledygook,” as Atlanta Journal-Constitution columnist Bill Torpy declared.

According to research, the time spent by managers and employees in collaboration has ballooned 50% or more over the past two decades, and at many companies more than three-quarters of an employee’s day is spent communicating with colleagues. High performance teams tend to innovate faster, find mistakes sooner and find better solutions to problems. 

In a 2015 study, executives said profitability increases when workers are persuaded to collaborate more. So, too, might learning and performance increase in more of Atlanta’s schools. Actively collaborating with and learning from others is a behavior that both leaders and students need to acquire and hone. In corporations, non-profits and schools, teams are now the fundamental unit of an organization. 

APS will need a leader who possesses Carstarphen’s commitment to work tirelessly on behalf of Atlanta’s kids, one who is as skilled as she is at putting plans and people in place to execute them. And it will need a leader who is equally expert at taking people -- including board members—with him or her, by intentionally establishing a district culture that engages and encourages higher levels of collaboration as he or she leads the way into APS’ future. 

Carstarphen’s intention to make students feel cared for and valued by participating in high school football practices, pep rallies and school dances with selfie stick in hand helped her achieve rock star status among her charges. The school board must look for a new leader who can also make his or her teammates on the board, across the district and throughout the city, feel as cared for and as valued as Carstarphen made Atlanta’s kids feel. 

Teams from the very top of APS down to the school level of people willing to listen to one another as much as they talk, who exhibit concern for one another along with a little empathy, just might pave the road for a better, higher performance APS to emerge. 

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About the Author

Maureen Downey
Maureen Downey
Maureen Downey has written editorials and opinion pieces about local, state and federal education policy since the 1990s.