New leader seeks revival of Atlanta public education

Rejuvenating Atlanta’s public education system will require finding “a light at the end of the tunnel” to recover from scandal and mistrust, said Meria Carstarphen, the school system’s incoming leader.

Carstarphen, during a day of interviews with Atlanta media Tuesday, said parents want her to focus on student achievement in hopes of moving past widespread cheating by teachers who changed students’ answers on standardized tests in 2009.

“Overwhelmingly the conversation is about, ‘Can we move forward, haven’t we talked about this enough, can we please have a light at the end of the tunnel?’ ” Carstarphen said during a meeting with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution’s editors. “There’s a lot of concern and frustration about the past, but there are a lot of people ready to move forward.”

Carstarphen said the school system needs to learn from its cheating scandal but can’t dwell on it. A state investigation found that 185 educators participated in changing students’ answers, and 11 of them — including former Superintendent Beverly Hall — face a criminal trial scheduled this fall.

“In some ways, it can hold the system back if we don’t start letting some of those things go,” she said at The Atlanta Press Club. “It’s not to forget that they happened, it’s not to ignore the problem, but it is to start putting it in its place and to start shedding some of these things and stepping out of the past and into a very very bright future.”

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Carstarphen said she’ll seek a “culture change” in which the school system will put children first and spend less time on issues that don’t directly have to do with education.

She’s already working to hire her staff and evaluate the school system’s needs during a transition period before she takes over as superintendent July 7. Current Superintendent Erroll Davis plans to retire.

She has interviewed candidates to become principals at Atlanta schools, with nine of about 20 openings filled so far after she and Davis met with them. She also brought in a human resources head and a chief performance officer who worked for her in similar roles when she was superintendent in Austin.

Carstarphen plans to reduce the bureaucracy of education administration, improve employee morale and raise the school system’s 59 percent graduation rate.

“Once we do it, right, there’s an expectation that we continue long past my tenure,” she said. “Once we do it, we don’t ever want to have to go back and redo it.”

She said she wants quality teachers in classrooms that prepare students for college and careers after school.

“The magic can flow. It does become a very special place where wonderful things happen for children. That’s something I don’t think is out of the reach for Atlanta,” she said.

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