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APS school chief: Can't change schools without changing culture


Leaving downtown to come to The Atlanta Journal Constitution Thursday to meet with editors and reporters, Atlanta Public Schools Superintendent Meria Carstarphen ran into an APS student on the street who called out to her. “You’re my superintendent.”

Why wasn’t the teenager in class? He told Carstarphen he was en route to a pre-trial hearing for fighting at school.

In her second year of running what she calls the most challenging district of her career, Carstarphen has concluded she cannot improve Atlanta’s lowest performing schools without addressing the intergenerational poverty that provides children with few of the life skills needed to thrive in an increasingly complex world.

At a recent community meeting in one of Atlanta’s poorest neighborhoods, Carstarphen spoke with a bewildered mother who told her, “I don’t understand what you all are talking about. I came to meetings, watched those presentations. I can’t understand the papers you gave me. I do not understand what is going to happen to my child.”

Carstarphen said, “There are generations of adults who have children in our schools, and they don’t know what we are doing. They try to show up. They raise their hands. The fact is people can’t communicate; they do not have the physical words in their mouths because the brain can’t create them. Generations of families don’t even have the vocabulary to explain what they are concerned about, much less read my overly wordy PowerPoint slides.”

She and the school board are about to attempt a goal that evaded Jimmy Carter's ambitious 1992 Atlanta Project -- breathing new life and hope not only into the schools in areas of extreme poverty  but in the parents and the community.

"If Atlanta wants a quality public school system, Carstarphen said, "Everybody is going to have to bend, not for me and not for the board. You have to bend for these kids and fix the things that are wrong in their lives."

The list is long, from broken sidewalks to broken homes, from poor nutrition to poor healthcare.

Spearheading such a renewal campaign seems a daunting task for a school district that can't get its buses to run. The "bum engines" in a third of the APS bus fleet are one of the many dysfunctions Carstarphen found when she arrived in town from Austin in 2014. “Transportation may be the death of me," said Carstarphen during her two hour session with the AJC.

The buses can be fixed and SPLOST will help. What cannot be solved as easily is the culture of the school system. Changing the culture will determine whether APS succeeds, according to the school chief.

Within the district, it's imperative employees move from adult agendas to child-centered decisions, she told the AJC. That’s why both Carstarphen and school board Chair Courtney English advocated coming down hard on staff at Thomasville Heights Elementary School after a large number missed a day of work.

M ore than half of the teachers at Thomasville -- where only four fourth graders out of 58 were on grade-level in reading  -- were absent the day after Carstarphen announced plans to bring in a charter school group to operate Thomasville  next school year.

Handing the lagging Thomasville Heights Elementary to a charter operator is part of Atlanta's plan to avert state takeover, if voters pass the Opportunity School District in November.

Although 19 people at the school called in sick that Friday, Carstarphen said APS could only show four or so lacked any legitimate reason. One of them has resigned. Others are going through the process of responding to the district's allegations of wrongdoing.

"I think the message is clear. Any kind of behavior that says we are putting these other adult needs in front of covering a kindergarten or a first grade classroom is not appropriate," she said.

Under Carstarphen's turnaround plan, Thomasville is one of five Atlanta schools that will be managed by charter school groups; three others will close. Based on state rankings, 60 percent of APS schools would be eligible for absorption into the Opportunity School District. Most are elementary schools, which surprised Carstarphen, given Georgia's strong pre-k program.

"That impact is not playing out in the way it should be," she said. "Our elementary schools by and large are the lowest performing schools in the system and in the state. For what middle and high schools are receiving in terms of children being prepared, they are working miracles. We have kids coming all the way through the system, and they are still reading at a 4th grade level and they are in the 11th grade."

Carstarphen emphasized the impetus to bring in charter companies was not only the prospect of losing schools to state control. “I was hired to do turnaround,” she said. “APS has a beleaguered past history that we must overcome.”

Most importantly, Carstarphen is focusing on the developing leaders with the depth and talent to guide the most troubled schools. “These leaders have to be the best and APS has to support them,” she said. “If you are going to have people in these positions, they have to be great or you have to make them great.”

Where Carstarphen sees movement thus far:

•Principals did not work together in the clusters. Schools were not working closely with central administration. That is changing.

•The overwhelming behavioral and cultural problems – kids who have no capacity to talk things out so they lash out  physically like the boy she encountered in downtown Atlanta – convinced her APS has to offer social and emotional learning. The district is using restorative justice as an alternative to kicking kids out of class. In restorative justice, students have a chance to talk about what happened with the affected parties and make amends. Districts that practice it see dramatic declines in suspensions, although there are complaints that the process can eat into instructional time.

•There was not a lot of coherence, quality and rigor in academic programs.  Now, Carstarphen says people understand “We are actually an organization that is focused on children and our purpose is pre-k to 12th grade  education.”

At a community level, Carstarphen said Atlanta has to own up to its past, saying, "I am not even sure Atlanta has internalized that it had the largest cheating scandal in public education history."



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About the Author

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