With smoke and spotlights, animated video, dancers and a marching band, Atlanta Public Schools Superintendent Meria Carstarphen delivered her final State of the District address Thursday.
Carstarphen, hired in 2014, has fashioned the annual event into a high-energy theatrical production. With her job winding down and her contract set to expire June 30, Carstarphen began the event by emerging from behind a large storybook prop and announcing her arrival to an applauding audience with the words: “Welcome to the 2019 State of the District. My name is Meria Carstarphen, and I’m still the very proud superintendent of Atlanta Public Schools.”
The theme for this year’s address, which took place at Harper-Archer Elementary School, was “The Epic of APS.”
Carstarphen traced the district’s history. She started in post-Civil War Atlanta in 1872 when the district first formed and then jumped to 1924 when Booker T. Washington High School, the state’s first public high school for African-Americans, opened. She stopped to mention the integration of Atlanta schools in 1961, and paused to rip down a banner with an Atlanta Journal-Constitution headline about the massive cheating scandal.
But most of the address focused on her tenure at APS.
“Five years ago we met at the intersection of our past and the quest of excellence,” she said.
She said the district has made strides during those years. She and other speakers cited graduation rate increases, a bigger pre-kindergarten program, lower principal turnover and a culture that is now working on behalf of children and not adults.
But she repeated a warning she’s voiced before, that the job isn’t finished.
“Research shows that sustainable progress comes in incremental spurts and in waves and you can see gains and drops and bigger gains and then another dip,” she said, adding that the district continues to move forward. “This work is not for the faint of heart.”
She said more work remains to be done to make education more equitable for all APS students, to narrow the large academic gap between white students and students of color.
After the event, advocacy organizations called attention to the racial and socio-economic class inequities that divide the school district.
“Despite well-intentioned efforts, too many struggling schools are as challenged today as they were five years ago,” said a news release from the Latino Association for Parents of Public Schools and GeorgiaCAN.
The groups contend that there’s been little or no movement in some schools, that charter school performance “varies significantly” and that some of the district’s highest-performing schools have room to enroll more students.
During a news conference after the event, Carstarphen said she’s proud of the gains APS has made so far but said that turning around the district is a “multi-decade journey.”
“It’s a 15-year journey. It took far less time to dismantle progress, so it’s going to take more time to put it back together,” she said. “You have to have time and patience to get through the tough spots.”
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