Carstarphen delivers the State of APS address at the old Howard High School gymnasium in the Old Fourth Ward.

Atlanta Public Schools’ Superintendent Meria Carstarphen used the gymnasium at the disused David T. Howard High School in the Old Fourth Ward as the backdrop for her State of the School System address, which focused heavily on the immediate need for action and transformation.

Carstarphen said reopening the historic Howard building – which saw Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Mayor Maynard Jackson and NBA star Walt Frazier in its classrooms – as a new middle school was a metaphor for the serious work that needs to be done to reinvent the school system.

Carstarphen was frank about the potential state takeover of APS schools if voters pass the Opportunity School District referendum next year. Under current data, 26 schools would be at risk for state takeover for chronically low performance, another 18 close to possible failing and 10 more with some level of risk.

“We will soon get new data from test scores and anticipate seeing a similar trend of at-risk schools,” Carstarphen said.

Under the theme “Grow, Lead and Transform,” Carstarphen touched on what she called APS’s “beleaguered history” with the standardized test cheating scandal, the need for new infrastructure and what some will consider controversial solutions, including replacing principals and bringing in private organizations to operate some of APS’s underperforming schools.

“I want every child to have a sense of pride when they say I’m a graduate of APS,” Carstarphen said. “To do that, we are going to have to move from an adult-centered agenda to child-centered behavior.”

Carstarphen said there are clusters of schools all over the district that are underperforming below grade level and state and national norms.

“That is why we have to make a change,” she said. “We owe it to the children so they can have a choice-filled life. We can help break the cycle of poverty, ignorance, corruption and violence and give our children the skills so they can make their choices come to life.”

The superintendent said she spent much of her first year as head of APS “putting out fires, dealing with political agendas, snuffing out corruption and other distractions.” But she’s still excited about APS and its future, even leading the audience in several cheers.

But the cheerleading was tempered with the warning that transforming APS was not going to be popular and was sure to make some uncomfortable. She specifically talked about “targeted interventions” for the Douglas and Carver clusters, which have a dozens of the lowest performing schools in the district.

Carstarphen likened APS’s rebuilding to the transformation of Grady Hospital, the East Lake Community and the quick efforts put into place by local and state officials after last year’s snow and ice storm that caught the region off guard.

“APS needs help from community members to give us knowledge on how to do this,” she said, also calling on local leaders and nonprofits. “I can’t do it alone.”

“This kind of bold change is going to be hard on people, staff and school communities,” Carstarphen said, “but we are out of time and have been.”

Collin Kelley

Collin Kelley has been the editor of Atlanta Intown for two decades and has been a journalist and freelance writer for 35 years. He’s also an award-winning poet and novelist.