From cheating scandal to pandemic: Atlanta schools chief bids farewell

Atlanta Public Schools Superintendent Meria Carstarphen waves to spectators during a Booker T. Washington High School homecoming parade on Sept. 20, 2014. HYOSUB SHIN / AJC FILE PHOTO

Atlanta Public Schools Superintendent Meria Carstarphen waves to spectators during a Booker T. Washington High School homecoming parade on Sept. 20, 2014. HYOSUB SHIN / AJC FILE PHOTO

Six years ago, Meria Carstarphen took over as superintendent of Atlanta Public Schools as the district battled to recover from a massive cheating scandal.

Today, she leaves APS amid a pandemic and national protests against systemic racism.

Her tenure, bookended by crises, was never boring.

Carstarphen previously led school systems in Austin, Texas, and Saint Paul, Minnesota. She arrived in Atlanta in 2014 and got to work.

With the school board's support, the district closed and merged schools and launched a plan to turn around low-performing schools that included outsourcing a half dozen to charter-network operators. APS tangled with the city of Atlanta over property deeds, a police contract and tax dollars for development projects; increased teacher pay and tried to rebuild trust broken by widespread cheating on state tests.

Carstarphen garnered a reputation as a charismatic, hands-on leader.

Atlanta Public Schools Superintendent Meria Carstarphen takes a selfie with then-Gov. Nathan Deal and first lady Sandra Deal at Whitefoord Elementary School. BEN GRAY/AJC FILE PHOTO

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She practiced with high school football teams and hosted elaborate song-and-dance-filled State of the District addresses. She visited countless classrooms, each time wearing that school's T-shirt. She took so many selfies with students and teachers that she wore out seven selfie-sticks, she wrote in a recent blog post. She liberally sprinkled her Twitter posts with emoji and peppered her speeches with passionate pleas to support APS.

Among her proudest achievements: The district's four-year graduation rate, as calculated by a federal formula, jumped from 59.1% to 77.9%.

She did draw fire. Critics still blast the decision to hire charter groups to run six schools. Some are disappointed with the academic progress in still-struggling schools.

Board members announced in September that a majority did not support extending her contract. They cited a range of reasons, including a desire to find a new leader to guide the district's next five-year strategic plan.

On Wednesday, Lisa Herring, who led the Birmingham, Alabama district for three years, will be sworn in as APS' next superintendent.

Carstarphen said she hasn’t decided what she’ll do next. She said her focus has been on making sure APS has a “full-service, full-time superintendent to the last day.”

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution spoke with Carstarphen before her last day as superintendent. The interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

Meria Carstarphen is sworn in as the new superintendent of Atlanta Public Schools by Fulton Superior Court Judge Melvin K. Westmoreland on July 7, 2014, at APS headquarters. BEN GRAY / AJC FILE PHOTO

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Q: What was the biggest challenge coming to APS in the wake of the cheating scandal?

A: There were hundreds of people that were being investigated. I remember my first week on the job, the DA had a list of a hundred of additional, unindicted co-conspirators in the cheating scandal. … We spent a lot of time still trying to support the investigation while preparing the district for a different future.

What I inherited was a school system that was just broken. It was just out of the rhythm of all things that were child-centered. It was arguably abandoned, especially after the cheating scandal where no one wanted to touch or engage with the system.

I know when I got here, I probably had the largest stack of anonymous communication. People would stick it under my windshield wiper or it would be wedged in the door of my car. You would get anonymous calls or emails.

When I look back at that first year, there were moments where I was like: ‘I’m not sure this can ever get turned around.’ It was so much firefighting, and every time you put one out another one would emerge.

Atlanta Public Schools Superintendent Meria Carstarphen delivers her 2018 State of the District address in a non-traditional way while dancing and performing with students at the newly built Walden Sports Complex. HYOSUB SHIN / AJC FILE PHOTO

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Q: What do you think is the most significant student-focused or academic achievement during your six years?

A: Part of what I am most proud of is the shift in the culture which set up our ability to do all of the things that we were dreaming about and aspiring to be and working to achieve. But that culture piece, it’s something I’ve never had to do at this level, and it was a game-changer for us.

We literally brought pride back to Atlanta Public Schools. Pride in your work, pride in wanting to graduate or have that diploma with ‘Atlanta Public Schools’ on it again, or pride that you chose a public school over a private school.

What I’m most proud of, related to that, was how our students reacted to the change, I think, in the adults.

I do think the graduation rate is really important. I’m also really proud of the efforts we made to get kids supported at the outset through early childhood.

Meria Carstarphen, superintendent of Atlanta Public Schools, smiles as she helps an APS family while they shop for back-to-school supplies at Target on July 31, 2015. HYOSUB SHIN / AJC FILE PHOTO

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Q: What’s the most pressing issue now for APS?

A: I do think APS is still going to have to go back and rebuild relationships and work on the culture to ensure that it doesn’t slip. There’s a lot of churn this year. [Carstarphen referenced the superintendent transition, the coronavirus pandemic and civil unrest.]

I think it’s important that the district wraps its arms around its people, the staff, the parents who actually choose APS every day and the students.

If it was unequal before [the coronavirus], it is going to be a chasm after. I think that’s the other thing: Just how do we make up for the lost instructional time, then the loss in the summer and then whatever happens in the model so that you’re making sure that you’re actually working to arrest the gap-widening, not exacerbating it.

Atlanta Public Schools Superintendent Meria Carstarphen put on a construction hat and vest as she delivered her 2015 State of the District address at the David T. Howard school site. BOB ANDRES / AJC FILE PHOTO

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Q: What does APS most need from the city of Atlanta, business or philanthropic partners?

A: Our partners have been amazing. It took awhile for people to come to APS, but when they did come back they kind of doubled down on our strategy, on our kids, on our staff.

They can always do more, but I think it’s just that they don’t slip away again. That they stay engaged and continue to invest in the children of Atlanta and their families.

I think there’s just been a lot of distraction [when it comes to the city’s role]. Long before I was superintendent, you just kind of inherit the distractions, and the costly lawsuits and all of those things. It would just be more helpful if they just began with: First, we’ll do no harm. Let’s not just add one more thing to burden the local public school system. And, I think, just that one gesture — and no surprises — would be a great start for the city to be able to help Atlanta Public Schools.

Atlanta Public Schools Superintendent Meria Carstarphen helps London Williams with her math assignment in during the first day of school at Peyton Forest Elementary school in 2018. BOB ANDRES / AJC FILE PHOTO

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Q: How has the experience leading APS changed you?

A: What I saw here in Atlanta changed … my philosophical underpinnings more than I’ve ever experienced in my career.

I used to believe, and I still believe this: That a quality education is a great equalizer. Once you get the education, you can move on, and you can move your family. And, you can break the cycle of poverty, the cycle of violence, the cycle of illiteracy, the cycles of corruption. And, I still believe that.

[But] that education in this city is not enough. And I think that the emerging research will show … that you need the quality education, but if you actually want to help a kid or a family you have to look outside of school into that neighborhood.

Schools cannot be, because they don’t have the capacity or the resources, all the things that now have been put on systems to solve for: Food deserts, affordable housing, a living wage for the parents, clothes.

Atlanta Public Schools Superintendent Meria Carstarphen delivered her final State of the District address at the newly renovated Harper-Archer Elementary School in November. Bob Andres/AJC FILE PHOTO

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Q: What are you doing next?

A: I definitely want to be engaged in important work. … I want to make a difference for kids and families. I’m keeping an open mind, and I hope that I find a great match for me, my style, my energy, my willingness to work in the public space.