Dear Team AISD,
Today, I was formally announced as the sole finalist for superintendent of Atlanta Public Schools. The formal vote by the Atlanta school board is scheduled for April 14.
Five years ago, I fell in love with Austin and our school district. And, for five years, it has been a privilege to serve AISD and to be a champion for public education and Austin’s children.
Together, we have achieved AISD’s best performance under the highest, toughest accountability standards in the state’s history.
As a school district, we have come together to support and help each other amid dwindling resources to serve our growing and incredibly diverse student body. As a community, we have become a national model, drawing attention for our work to challenge and reform educational systems to meet students where they are, while working to ensure they have a fighting chance to get to where they want to be—to achieve their greatest potential.
This year, the United States will celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Civil Rights Act. Next month, the nation will turn its attention to Austin as Presidents George W. Bush, Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton join President Barack Obama at the civil rights summit at the LBJ Presidential Library.
Lyndon B. Johnson’s legacy looms large in Austin and inspires me as both a teacher and civil rights champion. We can all draw from his example to challenge and change systems wherever we are in our respective corners of the world—from supporting long-neglected students in his classroom in Cotulla, Texas, to supporting transformative civil rights legislation in the White House. I grew up in Selma, Alabama, which is infamous for its role in the civil rights movement. Our nation’s struggles and successes have informed and inspired my work every day as I have taken responsibility for addressing inequalities in education here in Austin.
Together, we have openly and unapologetically refocused our resources and reformed our systems to more fully support the heart of our work: every student, in every school, in every community.
Together, we have made gains in a range of critical areas:
- Graduation Rates—AISD’s graduation rate has reached an all-time high: 82.5 percent, up from 74.3 percent in 2008. And, gains among students who historically have had lower graduation rates are even more impressive: graduation rates have increased by between 13.9 and 27.6 percentage points for African-American and Hispanic students and English language learners.
- Alternative Pathways—We have worked to ensure every student remains on the path to graduate from high school even if they need to take a different route to get there. To reach this goal, we have created alternative graduation pathways, like the Premier in-district charter programs at Lanier and Travis high schools and the Twilight School. I am pleased to report hundreds of students who have left AISD or who would be at-risk of leaving school have been able to use the programs to lay the foundation for their own path to graduation.
- Whole Child, Every Child—For all students to reach their full potential, AISD has been moving away from a culture of testing to one that emphasizes the whole child, every child. We have been adopting programs to combat discrimination and bullying. We also plan for the No Place for Hate initiative to reach every campus and every department in the district by the end of the school year.
- Social and Emotional Learning—Austin is one of the first districts in the nation working to integrate Social and Emotional Learning in the curriculum district-wide. SEL is the process through which children and adults acquire the knowledge, attitudes, and skills to recognize and manage their emotions, demonstrate caring and concern for others, establish positive relationships, make responsible decisions, and handle challenging situations constructively. We started SEL two years ago with 27 schools, we are in 71 schools this year, and it’s our goal, to have SEL in all schools at every grade level during 2015-16.
- Any Given Child and Austin’s Creative Future—Working with the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, AISD has helped launch a community-wide partnership with the City of Austin, Mindpop, and more than 40 community arts organizations to provide Any Given Child equal access to the arts. The arts are a powerful motivator in education. When students are more motivated, they have better attendance and perform better academically. They graduate at higher rates and are twice as likely to attend college.
- Attendance—We want students to experience all of the educational opportunities available to them and to do so they have to be in school. That’s why, three years ago, we launched an attendance campaign called Every Day Counts. We set a goal of improving attendance by one percentage point—and we have achieved it, which not only helps our performance, but it also generates an additional $5.3 million in state funding.
- Transition to New Graduation Plans—We are adapting to the new state graduation requirements that reduce the number of end-of-course exams from 15 to 5 and preparing one diploma plan with opportunities for students to earn five different endorsements in such areas as STEM, business and industry, art and humanities.
- Focus on Literacy—We are sharpening our focus on literacy education to help our students develop habits of mind that will prepare them for a full life, whatever path they choose.
- Disciplinary Program Reform— For far too long, African-American and Special Education students were disproportionately placed in alternative campuses for discretionary reasons and non-violent behavior. Last year, we changed our approach to allow more students to remain at their home campuses and stay on track for graduation. Since then, the number of discretionary removals from the classroom have dropped from 513 in 2011-12 to 207 in 2013-14, a 60% decrease.
These are amazing achievements we should celebrate as a community as we keep a keen eye on the future. Austin’s demographics are changing—and we must do everything we can to help every one of our students—especially our most vulnerable students. In AISD, we have been working hard to ensure our students are prepared to succeed today and tomorrow.
Although it will be difficult to consider leaving Austin, I know AISD would remain in the good hands and good care of our extraordinary educators, leaders and community—from our Board of Trustees and our front-line service providers to our civic leaders and families.
As a daughter of the Deep South, I have a personal draw to Atlanta and it’s deeply rooted in my own upbringing and personal experience in civil rights, having been born and raised in Selma, Alabama. I look forward to the opportunity to support the Atlanta community and rebuild the Atlanta Public Schools. I will always strive to be part of the solution for urban public education in our great country.
I plan on working with the AISD Board of Trustees during the next few weeks to develop a successful transition plan.
This is an exciting time for public education in Austin—and AISD. Our work is working. And, as a superintendent, I couldn’t be more proud. It has been a privilege to serve the students and families of Austin—and to work with and for you.
Meria J. Carstarphen