Quite a catch

In describing the grit it takes to transform a struggling school, new Atlanta Public Schools Superintendent Meria Carstarphen recounted the experience of a celebrated turnaround principal in her former district of Austin.

A finalist for 16 principal posts and always rejected, the woman was finally hired to lead a failed Austin high school facing state takeover. She arrived amid great doubts about her abilities — so much so that someone threw a dead fish at her during her first staff meeting, said Carstarphen.

“She caught it,” marveled Carstarphen. “And she told her staff, ‘Dead fish, dead school — this is going to stop now.’”

No one is tossing any fish at Carstarphen, unless you count the smoked salmon she is undoubtedly being served at the many “get to know us” fetes in the Commerce Club and paneled dining rooms of downtown hotels.

Unlike that principal in Austin, Carstarphen is not swimming against the tide in Atlanta. The 44-year-old faces an opposite and perhaps riskier situation: being greeted as a savior. APS board members practically swoon when they talk about her. Private donations are underwriting her salary during a two-month transition.

In an hour-long conversation last week, Carstarphen demonstrated the passion, energy and quickness that has convinced board members and business leaders alike she can rewire and revive APS. Our meeting was one of several Carstarphen crammed into a hectic daily schedule being managed with the help of her new press officer and an aide. (She’s also looking for a place to live that suits her and her husband, who works in Houston.)

While she assumes the school chief title in two weeks, Carstarphen is now building a cabinet, hiring principals and establishing priorities. She’s been meeting with staff until 1 or 2 in the morning and resuming at dawn.

Youthful and forceful, Carstarphen follows the unflappable Erroll Davis, the former University System of Georgia chancellor brought aboard to sanitize and stabilize the tainted district after the nation’s largest school cheating scandal.

She’s aware Atlanta, a system of only 50,000 students, receives an out-sized amount of media attention, and that her every move will be scrutinized. One decision already criticized: a few of the principal choices. Complaints about education credentials and track records of new principals overlook an important consideration, she said — whether that person is the right leader for a school, its community and its unique challenges.
Yes, the principal may be coming from a school where students performed at only 40 percent proficiency, but that principal may have raised it from 17 percent, she said. “That principal has something to tell me.”
Carstarphen said school-based leadership is critical. She plans to interview all principal candidates, including those at elementary schools. “I want to meet the first, second and third choices. And if there is a fourth, bring them in.”
She’s already witnessed the role of politics, expressing surprise over how many people attempt to influence hiring decisions in Atlanta. That, she says, will end.
Carstarphen said the shelf life of an urban superintendent is limited. And she understands what often dooms school chiefs is fraying relations with their boards and not education issues. She said she applies a mathematical formula, calculating a new school chief loses about 10 percent of school board support with each passing year.
After five years in Austin, Carstarphen said she left behind successful polices and potential successors in place. Atlanta had come wooing before, she said, but she still had work to do in Austin.
At an Atlanta Press Club speech, Carstarphen, a former middle school teacher, shared the advice she’d give a middle school student. It may also be good advice for her. “They need to breathe and take one day at a time.”