Carstarphen on Tour: Reagan High

The would-be superintendent meets more stakeholders

Superintendent finalist Meria Carstarphen speaks at a community meeting March 7 at Reagan High School.
Superintendent finalist Meria Carstarphen speaks at a community meeting March 7 at Reagan High School. (Photo by Jana Birchum)

For a second weekend, Meria Carstar-phen, the sole finalist to become Austin Independent School District superintendent, met Austinites Saturday in the Reagan High School cafeteria, as part of her 21-day public vetting process. Before an audience of about a hundred mostly white and African-American parents, as well as teachers and district employees, Carstarphen summarized her background and laid out her philosophy for the job. While she's proud of the magnet schools and innovative programs she introduced as superintendent in St. Paul, Minn., on this day Carstarphen emphasized fundamentals. Are kids in kindergarten through third grade getting the basic learning and comprehension skills they need to move on to higher grades, and are high schoolers really college- and career-ready? She stressed she'll protect what works and remove any proven failures, even if it upsets some stakeholders. That includes her own staff: While educators should be "the most beloved people in the community," she said, "we cannot protect failing teachers."

Her primary intention, she said, is to ensure that when big decisions are made, they are made with transparency. That way, even if stakeholders don't agree with a policy, at least they understand it. "Telling a more complete picture [about a school] is more important than how you tell it," she said.

The district board of trustees will make its formal decision on Carstarphen at its March 23 meeting. Offstage, board President Mark Williams said that while the board didn't recruit Carstarphen to fix one overwhelming problem ("Education isn't an either/or business," he noted), accountability is the core education issue in Texas. While in Minnesota, Carstarphen said, she had to "reconstitute, restructure, or close" 10 schools. With Reagan as well as Pearce Middle School facing state-mandated repurposing, that experience could be vital, and it was clear that this mostly East Austin crowd wants her to do whatever she can to prevent the closing of neighborhood schools. When one speaker asked her what the community can do to help, Carstarphen answered: "Give me a little time. ... And come together as a community ... so we can work for all the babies, all of the time."

In some ways, St. Paul is a lot like Austin, Williams added. Coming from another state capital means Carstarphen is used to dealing with legislators. She's worked in a multiethnic district with many students with limited English language proficiency, and while a majority of AISD's students are Hispanic, Wil­liams noted, "at Lanier [High School], there's over 50 languages spoken." Both districts have limited finances, and Carstarphen has overseen a $10 million budget shortfall in St. Paul. (But St. Paul has a $628 million budget for 38,000 students, while AISD has $972 million for 82,000.)

More importantly, Williams said, Carstar-phen understands that public education is only one option for families. While St. Paul has seen declining enrollments districtwide, AISD's overall rising student numbers disguise localized pockets of decline. The big challenge for Carstarphen and the board, Williams said, is: "How do we give our kids options and choices within the public school system?"

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public schools, Austin ISD, Reagan High School, Meria Carstarphen, Mark Williams, Pearce Middle School

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