1 year later, Carstarphen leading changed district
Superintendent has met many goals, but challenges remain
The Austin school district has a new pitcher, and it appears to many that her first season is a win.
Dressed in her typical tailored pantsuit and pearls, wearing her hair pulled back tight and electric blue stiletto platform shoes, Superintendent Meria Carstarphen last month literally threw some softballs to a principal and the school district’s attorney in the district boardroom, while trustees met in closed session.
That display of her playful demeanor contrasted with the hardball style she has become known for in dealing with her staff, the school board and state officials.
In what could be considered one of the most dramatic years in recent district history, Carstarphen has made tough, and at times controversial, decisions. After the state announced it would close a second Austin school, Pearce Middle School, Carstarphen successfully presented a plan to reorganize and reopen the campus. She closed a $15 million 2009-10 budget shortfall. But a year after arriving to hear that the district had fallen short of federal standards for the first time, early results this year indicate Austin likely could fall short again.
Critics say that in dealing with emergencies, Carstarphen is too sensitive to questions, has occasionally moved too fast for the board and has yet to focus on areas of the district that are working well but deserve attention. Her supporters say she has been brave in her leadership and sensitive to the needs of district workers and students.
“She was dealt a pretty
Continued from A tough opening hand,” said Louis Malfaro, president of Education Austin, which represents about 4,000 of the district’s teachers and other employees. “She handled it pretty well, walking into the blast furnace. There was no lying by the pool. There was heat from the beginning.”
Just months after Carstarphen was hired, the board offered her bonuses if she successfully completed a list of tangible and less quantifiable goals. She was to create a strategic plan, increase the number of schools receiving the state’s highest ratings, present a balanced 2010-11 budget, meet federal academic targets in all areas and turn around campuses that have been struggling for years. Trustees also challenged her to build leadership within the district and engage the community and business leaders.
In what was undoubtedly a highlight of her tenure, district officials recently announced that they believe that Pearce and all but one high school met state standards on the Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills this year — the first time that’s happened since students started taking the test in 2003. The development is particularly significant in that it takes several schools off the state’s watch list for not just one but several years, given that Texas is moving to a new accountability test, and removes the cloud of increased state involvement and possible school closure that has loomed over Austin for the past several years.
“What I admire about her is there’s no fear. When you work with kids, you should have no fear,” said Anabel Garza, the principal of Reagan High School, which, along with Pearce, was facing possible closure.
“We’ve spent a lot of time in the last few years talking about solutions. Sometimes what’s needed is to get out there and do it,” Garza said.
Even before results returned from this year’s TAKS, which the state uses to grade schools, along with attendance and dropout rates, Carstarphen proposed launching an Early College Start program at Reagan and LBJ high schools and a preparatory school for that program at Pearce.
In an interview recently, Carstarphen revisited the events of the past year, starting with state Commissioner of Education Robert Scott’s decision to close Pearce — something staff members had assured Carstarphen would not happen when she took the job.
Carstarphen hadn’t been in the office a week when she got that first bit of bad news about Pearce.
“The hardest part for me was preserving the independence of the district in the face of the far-reaching, and sometimes overreaching, state control,” she said. “I watched that Pearce thing go down in a way that felt overreaching and wasn’t going to help that community.”
A month later, federal education officials told district administrators that for the first time, Austin wouldn’t meet federal accountability standards.
Carstarphen, a self-proclaimed “type-A, disciplined person,” immediately took control, starting with a plan to reopen Pearce in time for the 2009-10 school year. She held a convocation for all the district’s 11,000 employees at the Travis County Exposition Center — something she knew could be risky given the expense and pessimism in the district.
During the event, she impressed many with her embrace of technology, including a text-message staff survey. It was a notable departure from how her predecessor, Pat Forgione, worked; Forgione rarely used e-mail or a cell phone.
Carstarphen pointed to
Austin school district Superintendent Meria Carstarphen shows the playful side of her personality as she celebrates scoring a goal against Michael Lofton, executive director of the African-American Men and Boys Harvest Foundation, at the foundation’s offices in Austin last month.