1 year later, Carstarphen lead­ing changed district

Su­per­in­ten­dent has met many goals, but chal­lenges re­main

Austin American-Statesman - - FRONT PAGE - By Melissa B. Taboada and Laura Hein­auer

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


next page

rodolfo Gon­za­lez Amer­i­cAn-StAteS­mAn

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.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from USA

© PressReader. All rights reserved.