Board votes to extend Carstarphen’s tenure

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Board votes to extend Carstarphen’s tenure

The Southerner

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By Bailey Kish and Max Rafferty

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Cartoon by Anna Poznyak

Last month, the Atlanta Board of Education voted unanimously to extend Superintendent Meria Carstarphen’s contract by one year, to June of 2018. Carstarphen began her work as superintendent on July 7 of last year as a replacement for interim superintendent Erroll Davis following Davis’ retirement.

The board chose to hire Carstarphen because of her excellent record of turning around inner city school districts in Austin, Texas and Saint Paul, Minn. School board chairman Courtney English explained that Carstarphen greatly exceeded the board’s expectations.

“While Dr. Carstarphen inherited many challenges, we are on target with a five-year strategic plan, and remain confident that Dr. Carstarphen will continue to be a strong leader for us,” English said in a school board meeting on Aug. 10.

However valuable, Carstarphen didn’t come cheap; her salary and benefits surpass $400,000 per year. She started her tenure at a base annual salary of $375,000, eligible for a raise of two percent each year, a perk she has forgone until all APS staffers receive raises again. APS also provides her insurance stipend and retirement fund contributions equivalent to 10 percent of her annual salary, covers her required payments to the Teachers Retirement System of Georgia, covers costs to set up a home office (including two computers, a tablet, and internet costs), and provides $9,600 a year for expenses in addition to transportation costs (including $1,200 a month toward car payments), moving costs, and other benefits.

The board, however, believes she’s worth the cost. Two of the major metrics for superintendent performance are attendance and graduation rate, and according to information released by APS, the 2013-2014 school year, Carstarphen’s first, neither of these factors changed noticeably. Attendance took a slight hit across all levels of education according to Infinite Campus, the online system used to track attendance and report grades; however, this could be explained by a higher percentage of teachers consistently taking attendance.

Average daily attendance stood at 95.4 percent for elementary schools, 92.9 percent for middle schools and 88.6 percent for high schools. This rate is still much lower than desired — the national average is 96.7 percent, and Georgia’s average is 95 percent, according to National Education Association estimates.

Meanwhile, drop-out rates fell from 5.7 percent to 5.2 percent, a difference of about 550 students. Although this change may be the result of random chance, the board attributes it to “an aggressive plan” to increase graduation rates and raise the number of scholarships awarded to students.

While these statistics take a greater duration of time to show the influence of administrative changes, other metrics show change more rapidly. Although the board’s evaluation process was held behind closed doors, the superintendent evaluation from APS’ August board meeting revealed many improvements that Carstarphen’s leadership has already brought to the district.

APS reported 5,000 more students attending school on the first day than in 2014, a result many attribute to the new “Day One: Be There” campaign. Additionally, every APS school began its year with a principal for the first time in years, and just nine teachers missed the first day. APS also made changes to its substitute teacher system, increasing the percentage of classes missing teachers that were filled by substitutes from 81 percent to 92 percent.

In addition, eight APS schools including Grady were removed from the state’s priority list or the focus list. According to the Georgia Department of Education, schools on these lists are the bottom 5 percent or the bottom 10 percent in academic achievement of schools made up of primarily low-income students, or Title 1 schools. Despite these successes, 15 APS schools remain on the state’s priority list, and 22 are currently on the focus list.

“Systemic improvements have already begun … based off Dr. Carstarphen’s goals and plans for APS, I foresee higher graduation rates, rising test scores, and a better overall APS as a result of her leadership,” said Debra Coleman, Grady’s PTSA president.

Aside from statistical improvements, the board said Carstarphen demonstrated commitment to improving culture, a view shared by Grady teacher Mario Herrera.

“I am impressed that she walks the walk, meaning she seems to become involved with issues she speaks of,” Herrera said, adding that, as a teacher, he appreciates her efforts to ease his workload. “This is not an easy job, and we don’t enter the profession believing it is easy. The amount of testing is, in my opinion, absolutely ridiculous … Dr. Carstarphen states that she knows we have too much on our plate. She’s only been here for a year, and I believe she does care for students.”

Carstarphen began preparatory work with the board before her official start date, allowing her to jump immediately into transitioning the district to its new “charter system” status.

Other improvements since Carstarphen’s arrival include improved employee evaluation standards, the creation of new committees to encourage community involvement and training for all APS employees. The district also refreshed desktops and laptops and made 22,000 new virtual desktops available to students.

Carstarphen also improved bus safety through the creation of a new bus tracker app for parents and the installation of cameras near some bus stops.

The board and Carstarphen revamped APS’ financial and resource distribution by developing a new budget they say “shifts resources to strategic priorities, schools and clusters, and out of general administration.” The school system recontracted with Sodexo, a company that provides food for APS cafeterias, a move they say provides “more local and organic food options … and chefs assigned to each cluster.”

In recognition of these improvements, the board received a prestigious Council of Great City Schools award for Excellence in Financial Management.

Coleman expressed her support for Carstarphen and her new wave of reforms.

“She appears be very accessible and hands-on. Basically, [she’s] a breath of fresh air which APS needs,” Coleman said.

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