Carstarphen's Vision

No more coattails for AISD

AISD Superintendent Meria Carstarphen tries out a color-by-numbers program.
AISD Superintendent Meria Carstarphen tries out a color-by-numbers program. (Photo by Richard Whittaker)

In her Nov. 17 State of the District Address, Austin Independent School District Superin­ten­dent Meria Carstarphen laid out her vision for the district: better strategic planning, better community relations, better staff and student retention, and a distribution of resources across the district that is both fair and effective. Warning that reaching minimum standards without breaking the achievement gap isn't enough, she told the audience: "We can't hold on to the coattails. We have to be the top hat."

Four days later at Sanchez Elementary, she got to show off, if not a top hat, a particularly bright and colorful beanie. IBM had donated 50 Young Explorer learning centers to the district as part of its KidSmart Early Learning Program, all going to the eight elementary schools that feed into Eastside Memorial High. The child-friendly computer units, complete with preloaded educational software and double benches so that kids can share access, proved to be so much fun that Carstarphen warned the IBM reps that "if you send one to my office, I will play with it all the time," and spent five minutes after the press conference on a color-by-numbers program. In fact, the event summed up her agenda: accessible technology, provided by a community partner, making learning fun for children.

The next step for the district is to define and formalize a four-year strategic plan. The board will hold meetings throughout Decem­ber, followed by public consultations, with drafting planned for early spring. This process will feed directly into the budget discussions, which Carstarphen hopes to start in February. According to AISD board of trus­tees President Mark Williams, "Once we have the plan, we get into the budget, and we can hope to align the budget priorities with the strategy." At both her address and the presentation, Carstarphen repeated her planning mantra: Nothing is off the table until she gets the guidance on what exactly it is that the community wants her to do. With the toolbox open, Williams added, the board's role "will be supporting her, because she will come under fire because not everyone's going to agree on what to do and what the priorities are."

Drew Scheberle, senior vice president for education and workforce development with the Greater Austin Chamber of Com­merce, believes Carstarphen faces a district with different challenges than those her predecessor, Pat Forgione, inherited when he began his tenure. "When he arrived," Scheberle said, "everything was on fire, and the district was wholly dysfunctional." While Forgione dealt with the most egregious and criminal problems, he added, "We still have a long way to go, and I think Pat would say the same thing." Scheb­erle's takeaway from the State of the District Address was that Carstarphen is serious about dealing with major structural issues, "and that's why the board hired her. Those changes will cause some dislocation, but they're important if we're going to make the kind of outsize gains that we need."

While the district has previously worked with outside agencies and groups, a cornerstone of Carstarphen's presentation was what she called "RFHs – requests for help." Starting with a major push on bilingual education, she plans to increase the number of working relationships with businesses, universities, and local communities, potentially establishing new formal liaison posts. The chamber is committed to sink roughly half a million dollars a year into Partners in Educa­tion for the next four years, plus there are hundreds of volunteers from the business community. Scheberle said: "This isn't planting trees or pizza parties. This is key interventions by members of the business community at key moments." It's not completely altruistic: As IBM manager Sandy Dochen said at the learning center launch, there is a shortage of engineers, especially Hispanics and bilingual speakers, which can only be solved by early and proactive intervention.

Education Austin President Louis Malfaro has been a longtime critic of the district's unwillingness to tackle exactly that kind of major structural issue. Carstarphen, he said, is "more willing to be critical than district leaders have been in the past about historical legacies." But while he praised her commitment to teacher quality and her aggressive stance on bilingual education, he said there was "some discomfort on our behalf because of the short-term fiscal picture." With falling property-tax rolls, the district is predicting a tough budget even before Carstarphen starts restructuring programs and reallocating resources, while still maintaining a $100 million reserve. Malfaro argued that the district can't use that as an excuse to pummel teachers, and what he's hearing from Carstar­phen doesn't allay his concerns: "She continues to say, on one hand, 'We really need to do more about our teachers and our quality,' and the next sentence is, 'and I'm going to whack them 50 bucks a month for their insurance and increase their class sizes.'"

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