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The Carstarphen Tenure: Austin Schools Superintendent Looks Back

KUT News
AISD Superintendent Meria Carstarphen at a board meeting in 2011. Carstarphen has been in charge of the district since 2009.

Editor's note: Austin ISD Superintendent Meria Carstarphen is leaving to become Atlanta's school superintendent. Read more about Carstarphen's departure and what that means for AISD.

In December 2013, on the eve of what would be Carstarphen's final State of the District address, KUT looked back at her time leading AISD.

Original story (Dec. 3, 2013): Austin ISD Superintendent Meria Carstarphen’s releases her 2013 State of the District today – a movie where the superintendent highlights the district’s achievements and challenges over the past year.

It’s Carstarphen’s fifth State of the District since she became superintendent in 2009.

When Meria Carstarphen was named superintendent in 2009, she said one of her goals was to close the achievement gap between rich and poor students. At Pickle Elementary, she said her goal was to ensure "poor students and students of color are getting highest quality education possible; there’s enough evidence to show that we haven’t turned the corner on that.”

Not only has closing the achievement gap proven to be a difficult undertaking, it's just one element of her job.

In fact, Carstarphen’s task could be characterized as one big balancing act: balancing the academic achievement between students; balancing a budget while facing deficits and large cuts from the state; and finding a way to balance enrollment in a district with several overcrowded and underenrolled schools.

Taking Steps to Close the Achievement Gap

It took no time at all for the challenge to make itself clear: Less than a week into the job, the state shut down Pearce Middle School after years of unacceptable ratings. Carstarphen tells KUT News she recalls a district struggling to stay afloat.

"We had several unacceptable schools, and the pressure on me included the closure of a middle school – second day of the job, right before everyone was leaving for Fourth of July," she says. "It was just a huge painful start to a tenure – where people didn’t get a chance to get to know you and a school was already fighting for its life.”

One way Carstarphen has tried to create a balance – and close the achievement gap – is through dual language programs. Classes are taught in two languages. That helps English language learners speak English, while also helping English speakers learn a second language. She expanded the program to all elementary schools; the district is working to expand it to middle schools. 

“We’ve been able to utilize the strength of the district,” Carstarphen says. “That I think was seen as a deficit before – of having such a large, rich population of students who have Spanish and other language abilities that help us improve bilingual education, but [also] offering a wealth of other connective tissue between the diversity of our student population and what we can build in programming."

If you look at the data – and Superintendent Carstarphen does a lot – there’s been some success when it comes to closing that achievement gap. The district’s graduation rate overall has increased by eight percentage points in four years. It’s increased for all student groups: Hispanics, economically disadvantaged, special education students.

“There isn’t a subgroup of students that isn’t graduating at a higher rate than four years ago. And while we’re not Number One in the state, in comparing our performance against ourselves, we’re moving in the right direction.”

English language learners have seen the highest gains. When Carstarphen started, 37 percent of English language learners graduated high school. Last year, 64 percent received a high school diploma.

Balancing a Budget

While the school district has made some gains when it comes to closing the achievement gap, Carstarphen had to make some hard choices when it came to balancing the budget.

After the 2011 legislative session, state budget cuts meant Austin lost $60 million from its annual budget, leaving the district with a huge deficit.

“We did huge engagement around asking people for solutions," Carstarphen says. "And agree or disagree, we implemented all the ones we could, all the way to the wall, of discussions about efficiencies and the use of our infrastructure.”

Carstarphen is talking about the district’s proposal for a Facility Master Plan, which raised the option of closing some schools to save money. Parents and community members protested potential school closures across the city.

“That’s where Austin drew a line in the sand about how much in reductions we were willing to do,” Carstarphen says. “Because we did do staffing reductions, but when it came to school buildings, that’s where Austin drew the line. If we’re not going to get efficiencies out of infrastructure, then your only other option is people. People and programs to students.”

In the end, the district eliminated more than 1,000 positions. But when the school district announced the layoffs, Carstarphen was out of town – an absence she was criticized for at the time.

“I would’ve liked to have seen the superintendent share that news," says Ken Zarifis, president of teacher's union Education Austin. "But at the end of the day, that’s water under the bridge.”

Charter Schools Rising

The failure to adopt a Facility Master Plan means the district doesn’t have a roadmap in place for future discussions. Still, the superintendent is tasked with finding a way to balance the number of students at overcrowded and underenrolled schools. In many of those underenrolled neighborhoods, the district is competing with other options, like charter schools.

Before her arrival, Carstarphen says the district wasn’t tracking the number of charters in the city, or how many students were leaving the district for charter schools. One way the superintendent has tried to keep students in AISD is through in-district charters.

At the end of 2011, the school board approved a contract with IDEA Public Schools to open a charter at Allan Elementary in East Austin. But the plan was criticized by some education leaders and the Eastside community.

“They want to do what they think is the best interest in the community without listening to the community and although the community has valid points that should’ve been presented … they weren’t invited,” said Pride of the Eastside’s Vincent Tovar during the debate.

Last year, the district canceled its contract with the charter. But when IDEA opened its own school this year, Carstarphen says many families went with it.

“Whether people like the design or don’t, we knew we had hundreds and hundreds of families that were interested in having that as an option within the system. And when that option was removed, they went with that design," she says.

Communication Breakdown?

The debate left a bitter taste in Eastside residents’ mouths, which Tovar expressed at a district board meeting earlier this fall.

“Going into any Eastside community meeting about AISD, the vast majority of informed staff and parents that I speak to want to know how soon the superintendent will leave," he said. "That’s a serious issue.”

It also represents what Tovar and other education leaders characterize as the district’s biggest weakness, one that’s carried over from one administration to another: a lack of engagement with the public.

Ken Zarifis with Education Austin says communication goes beyond the superintendent’s ability to communicate one-on-one.

“Until the district has a system that we can point at and say, ‘That’s how we can communicate, y'all can be in that feedback loop, you can all participate in it, we're not hiding it, its there’ – until that happens, regardless of leadership, we’re not going to have that engagement the community says it wants,” Zarifis says.

Carstarphen agrees communication is necessary, but says it’s not always easy in a district of 86,000 people.

“We talk about it all the time – we are so absorbed in our inside baseball – but most people are having a far more normal life," she jokes. "So our stuff isn’t what they're thinking about."

On the Horizon

The Austin School Board has created a community engagement plan to improve communication with the public. But the Austin Chamber of Commerce’s Drew Scheberle 
says however the district engages people, it needs to address overall community opinion, not just a vocal minority:

“This shouldn’t be something where the needs of 86,000 are held hostage by a few squeaky wheels," he says.

Whatever the methods, Carstarphen and the school board will get a chance to hear from the community in the upcoming year. The board must approve a Facility Master Plan by the end of the academic year. And there’s another budget deficit that it needs to balance.

“I’d like to honor the guiding principals of the Facility Master Plan. I’d like to take that work and be able to work with community the way it wants to be worked with” Carstarphen says. “But if you’re not going to do it out of programs, you have to take it out of infrastructure,  you gotta take it out of people, if you don’t take it out of positions and people, then what gives?"

Meanwhile, July will mark Carstarphen’s fifth year as superintendent in Austin. The average superintendent sticks around for 3.6 years.But she says she has no plans to leave before her contract ends in June 2015.

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