“Am I putting students first?”

That’s the mantra of Meria Carstarphen, Ed.D, whose role, as the superintendent of Atlanta Public Schools (APS), is to turn the once failing school district into a gem of the South.

Prior to her hire in 2014, APS faced local and national backlash after a group of teachers were indicted for their involvement in a 2014 cheating scandal. As a result, many of the school district’s operational and academic deficiencies were exposed.

When Carstarphen arrived, she uncovered even more challenges, but her passion for public service and a world-class education for Black, Brown and poor children fueled her solution-oriented work.

“It wore on my heart, it wore on my belief and hope in public education as I watched things fall apart during that time,” says the graduate of both Tulane and Harvard universities and the former superintendent of districts in Washington D.C. and Austin, Texas. “It was hard to ignore this city that needed seasoned leadership, someone who knew how lay out the plan and who cared enough to not use the past of the district to push some personal agenda. I just wanted to take care of, and help, my people.”

Beyond her portfolio, Carstarphen credits her upbringing in Selma, Ala., just three hours from Atlanta, for laying the foundation for her work and leadership style. A battleground for justice during the 1965 Civil Rights fight, Carstarphen says her hometown and her parents showed her that she can create change from the ground-up.

Says the superintendent: “It is such a part of my core that it has made me a very different kind of leader and probably the most appropriate person to be working in urban public settings where kids often come to school from circumstances that they can’t change.”

To transform APS, Carstarphen immediately began working with leadership and staff to address issues with pay parity, academics and vacancies in teacher and leadership roles.

Amid talks of state takeover of low-performing school districts, a turnaround model was developed to improve student achievement and resolve lingering issues from the cheating scandal. Carstarphen implemented several programs and practices that directly impact students and their communities including a remediation enrichment program for students involved in the cheating scandal. 

Since then, state data shows that 91 percent of seniors who were enrolled in APS during that period graduated on time. Additionally, a social and emotional learning program has been implemented for students who may face difficult issues specific to residents living in Atlanta.

Carstarphen and her team have worked to strengthen the system by securing state and federal grants and up to 172 local partnerships — including two dozen Fortune 500 companies– to leverage community support for schools through funding and mentorship.

She considers the recent vote to re-implement a renewable one-cent sales tax to help build schools as a “vote of support.” The tax, which will generate $546 million in capital improvements, had not received a vote to renew since 2011.

Essentially, she’s implemented a new way of running things.

“We have changed our operating model for the system,” she says. “Moving from one that’s very bureaucratic and top-down to more autonomy and flexibility in schools.”

“GO Teams,” comprised of parents, teachers, a student and principal, serve as governing boards for each school to provide them with input and flexibility in how their schools are operated to increase student academics.

For the 2014-2015 school year, APS’ graduation rate has increased 12 points, and 800 graduates qualified for the inaugural Achieve Scholarship Program, funded by a local foundation. Low income students can receive “last dollar assistance” for admission into a two or four year college or a technical program. State assessments also indicated that more than 25 APS schools showed academic gains and some low-performing schools were removed from the list for potential state takeover.

Despite the shifts, some strategies have been met with opposition from the community. Rather than closing schools and bussing students to alternative schools, APS partnered with a local charter operator to turn around school culture and student achievement at the lowest performing elementary school in the district and state. Charter schools across the country are hosting an ideological battle with traditionalists who feel the schools suck much-needed money from districts. Atlanta’s schools are neighborhood-based and thrive on tradition and community ownership, but Carstarphen stands by her decision as data shows they are moving in the right direction.

“I wanted to hold on to the neighborhood feel, but also recognize–and I know it’s hard–given where the district has been and how much it’s taking to do the other parts of the turnaround, that we needed more capacity,” she says. “We needed people that we could bring in that would help us turn the school around as quickly as possible to build up the strength of the school so that over time, as we make decisions about what happens with that building and the program, that kids aren’t sent out unprepared and unsupported.”

Carstarphen says her leadership style is passionate and integrity-based, which is crucial for the hard, and sometimes unpopular decisions she has to make every day. “I can’t change the chairs on the deck,” she says. “I have to put people on a boat that’s not leaking, and then you have a fighting chance to survive and thrive.”

An earlier version of this story mentioned the 2015-2016 Atlanta Public Schools graduation rate. It has been changed to reflect the correct school year.