ing she demonstrates a downto-earth, accessible style and appears most comfortable in schools and around students. Others have disagreed with her quick changes. Teachers said the biggest change they saw from Carstarphen was in the increased energy and accessibility.
Angela Gatto Buckingham, an English instruction coach at Reagan, said she remembers how, after some skepticism about the convocation, she ended up being inspired by Carstarphen’s focus on equity for all students.
“I remember when I was leaving, being excited about the school year,” she said. Months later, at an event honoring a colleague as the district’s teacher of the year, Buckingham said she was struck by how Carstarphen came over and sat with their group. “I realized how onthe-ground she wants to be, and I really appreciate that.”
Candice Kaiser, a forensics and chemistry teacher at Reagan, agreed that the little things meant a lot. She said the thing that impressed her most about Carstarphen is how she gave a student her cell phone number after meeting her at an east side schools planning meeting.
“It just showed how far she’s willing to go for the success of the students,” Kaiser said.
Carstarphen said accessibility is key.
She said she kicked off her year with a convocation because “people can’t be kept in the dark with the leader and the (style) of the leader.”
Last week, the district made automated calls to residents, asking them to rate Carstarphen’s performance in the district, including her effectiveness in improving low-performing schools.
“You’ve got to hear from the people you serve,” Carstarphen said. “It’s a big system. There’s a lot of noise between me and what’s happening in the classroom every day.”
Trustee Robert Schneider praised Carstarphen’s involvement with the community, especially her embrace of technology, which he said she’s used not only to document what she has done but to interact with the community.
The things she’s saying are different as well, Schneider said: “There’s an openness that was not there before — to say that a part of town has, whether you agree or not, been historically neglected. It’s hard to imagine a prior superintendent making that statement.”
But Schneider said he also is concerned about the amount of information board members get and Carstarphen’s responses to questions.
“One of the things I’m still trying to feel my way through is how do you ask a question without it being perceived as a criticism,” he said. And despite community feedback and making herself available, some of her decisions have caused rifts with sectors of the community.
Reforms shifting the district’s bilingual education program to a dual-language model have resulted in a tenuous relationship between Carstarphen and some members of Austin’s Hispanic community. Critics have said that the program may not go far enough to help English-language learners and that they fear district leaders don’t prioritize non-English-speaking students’ interests.
A recent decision about whom to support in efforts to replicate a New York-based anti-poverty program, called the Harlem Children’s Zone, also caused friction. Though district officials said a group called the Austin Achievement Zone, which focused on Northeast Austin, was betterorganized, officials with Southwest Key, a local charter school operator that also sought district support, said they didn’t see why the district couldn’t endorse both programs.
“I know there are advocates out there who feel a certain way about some things … but I feel like other members of the community leadership have given me the benefit of the doubt from day one,” Carstarphen said. “And I feel like we’ve reciprocated that by having a banner year for AISD.”
Torres said Carstarphen has done “a very good job” overall, with early focus on Pearce and other struggling schools in the East Austin community, but “that has been done at the expense of other areas. She recognizes that.”
Schneider agreed. “I guess there were the four priorities from the board … and the immediate one was addressing low-performing schools,” he said. “That’s a big job. At the same time, that doesn’t mean you just turn off everything else.”
Torres also said Carstarphen needs to focus on developing the district’s relationship with the University of Texas, the areas of the district that don’t have struggling schools, professional development and finishing staffing her seniorlevel cabinet.
“She’s going to have to focus on personnel issues,” Torres said, adding that the board had anticipated that key members of Carstarphen’s cabinet, which he deemed essential in helping run the district, would have been in place more quickly.
Carstarphen, who named her chief operations officer two weeks ago, said high-level positions can be filled quickly, but: “I hire slowly and deliberately, because there’s nothing like a bad hire in public education. I am sure about my decisions. I took all the time in the world to get the right people in the right positions at the right time, and it will serve AISD well. They were worth the wait.”
Carstarphen said she’s learned much in her first year and is ready for the second.
“The end was so much better than the beginning,” she said. “I could not be more proud of what we accomplished.”