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Tuesday, May 13, 2014 - 1:06pm

New Atlanta School Chief: Let's Move Past Scandal

In her first public address Tuesday in Atlanta, the incoming Atlanta Public Schools superintendent said it’s time for APS, the city of Atlanta and others to begin to see the scandal as only one part of the district’s history.

Speaking at the Atlanta Press Club, Meria Carstarphen said she was honored the board chose her to help the school district move beyond the cheating scandal that erupted in 2009. Carstarphen comes from the public school system in Austin, Tx., where as superintendent she oversaw a district with 87,000 students in 123 schools. Atlanta, by contrast, has 50,000 students.

She takes over APS five years after an analysis of standard test results revealed a widespread cheating ring throughout the district that ultimately took down Carstarphen’s predecessor, Beverly Hall.

Carstarphen said given that history, she considers it a distinct privilege to be chosen as superintendent.

“It’s an honor to have people really think that your work experience, your life experience could really match and help lift Atlanta, an area where there’s really such a deep challenge,” she said.

Cheating Scandal Hurts APS Recruitment

She was candid about how much the cheating scandal continues to dog the district. And in answering a journalist’s question about recruitment, she said it’s difficult to convince some candidates to take a chance on APS.

“I have to be honest it’s a hard story to explain and tell,” she said. “A lot of people are hopeful. But they will say, ‘Call me back in a year and we’ll see how it goes’.”

She added, “It has been a little more difficult than I’d hoped it would be.”

That comes as she says improving the district’s leadership is one of the most important projects she sees ahead. Nonetheless she said the district has to think about its future, not just the past. And every employee, and every member of the community needs to work together to make sure it’s a bright one.

“No matter how many times I talk to a journalist, people go straight to the challenges of the past. I think we are well aware [of them],” she said. “I feel like in some ways it can hold the system back if we don’t start letting of some of these things go. 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 she also said, the system’s school children must come first.

“Let’s talk about children first. Put politics aside,” she said.

Big Thinker, Big Challenges

Carstarphen has been received warmly. And it’s clear she’s surrounded by a deep well of warm feeling. The sold-out lunch was packed with members of the school board and the Atlanta City Council. And that led to a funny moment.

“Chair English, you cannot be texting in the middle of my speech!” she said to Courtney English, who heads the Atlanta School Board, to laughter all around.

And after the event, it was clear anyone with a stake in APS has high hopes for her.

“She’s such a big picture thinker,” said school board member Leslie Grant. “I think she will bring a holistic understanding to what it’s going to take to make it work for all of the kids."

Patty Pflum leads Communities In Schools, a national nonprofit helping at-risk children that began in Atlanta. She says it’s critical Carstarphen recognizes the importance of groups such as hers, which provide mentoring services and medical screenings. That’s because a child can’t learn if he hasn’t eaten in a day or doesn’t have a clean set of clothes.

“A new superintendent for the district can decide that his or her vision doesn’t include CIS or this kind of community involvement,” she said in remarks before the event.

After the event, Pflum said Carstarphen said all of the right things in her talk. And she’s hopeful the new superintendent will realize the importance of intangible aspects of a student’s education, including parental involvement and after-school programs.

Despite giving her first public address, Carstarphen has yet to begin her new job. She starts on July 7.

Carstarphen, who is African-American, is a native of Selma, Ala., and has degrees from Tulane, Auburn and Harvard universities.