School Superintendent Makes No Apology for Her High Expectations


Has the St. Paul public school system finally found stability in the superintendent’s office?

That would appear to be the case. After Pat Harvey resigned the position in 2005, two interim superintendents served the district before Meria Carstarphen took the helm. She celebrated her one-year anniversary in the top spot on July 31 and said she plans to be around for a good long while.

Originally from Selma, Ala., Carstarphen began her career as an educator there, teaching for four years. Carstarphen came to St. Paul via Washington, D.C., where she worked in the school district for two years. Before her stint in D.C., she served in different capacities in school districts in Columbus, Ohio, in Boston and New York City.

Along the way, she also earned a Ph.D. from Harvard University. “I trained specifically for urban public education — I wanted to work in districts with high poverty and high numbers of kids of color,” Carstarphen said.

Although she said her parents were professionals, growing up in Alabama permanently affected her views about education. “Selma was, and probably still is, an extremely segregated community,” Carstarphen explained. “I went through a system that was tracked — you were either on the college-bound track, the honors track, or you were not. There was no mistake in anyone’s perception when you walked into our schools or any classroom. You could tell which ones were honors, advanced placement, and college-bound, and which ones were not. Probably the easiest thing to recognize about the college-bound classes is that they were all white; the classes were all sorts of other colors if they were not,” she said.

Even so, she says, race is not the primary factor affecting students: “I would say the cross-cutting issue for us in education is poverty: poor white kids, black kids, Latino kids, language learners, special ed — all get a real bad shake for opportunity when you’re a child in poverty.”

One main reason children in poverty don’t perform as well overall, she said, is systemic: Those children are not expected to do well and are treated accordingly by far too many educators.

She wants to make sure such low expectations don’t take hold in the St. Paul school system. “That’s not just for kids of color; it’s for everyone, and I want to see all kids succeed. But we’re kidding ourselves in America if we think we’re doing the right job for African American kids, and for Latino kids,” especially when gender is factored in, she said. “Now, that can change.”

Carstarphen’s vision for that change appears in the St. Paul schools’ recent Strategic Plan for Continued Excellence, which draws on her own childhood experience of having parents actively engaged in overseeing her education and her perceptions of children stigmatized by their socioeconomic status.

“That [change] doesn’t happen in the classroom or at the school level; that happens with the board of education and the superintendent agreeing on a mission and vision that we’re going to do this thing, and at the end of the day there’s going to be a premier education for all, period,” she said. But two issues, she said, are “non-negotiable” — high quality of education and accountability by officials.

Her plan involves more than the board and the superintendent, however: It incorporates input obtained from parents in the various St. Paul communities, and ongoing input sessions are an integral part of the plan.

Carstarphen credits the residents of St. Paul for providing the financial resources that will make implementing the vision for St. Paul schools achievable: “The community did a great service for St. Paul public schools when they passed that [school funding] referendum last November –$30 million a year times six years with an inflation rate,” she said.

Those additional funds increased the St. Paul district’s operating budget to $629 million, bringing it to within $9 million of Minneapolis’ $638 million operating budget. St. Paul had 40,543 students enrolled compared with Minneapolis’ 36,370 students as of October 2006, the last date for which figures are available.

“That’s a lot of money and resources that the community is picking up where the state has not,” Carstarphen said of St. Paul residents’ support. “I am so appreciative of St. Paul for saying to us that even when the state isn’t doing the right thing that they would pay out of their pockets to ensure that our students — about 70 percent of our kids are in poverty — will be supported in the public schools.”

In gratitude, Carstarphen promises that those funds will be committed to “the things that we totally need to use them on,” and that those dollars will be tracked closely to guarantee they are being spent wisely. “As long as I’m here, they’re going to hear that their money was invested well and in the things that we said we would invest in — which are research-based and really good at giving our kids a really good start,” she vowed.

“I learned very early on that community engagement is really, really important,” she added. “These are our clients; we should be serving them well.”

Serving the community means setting high expectations in the superintendent’s mind. “I expect everyone to have high expectations of adults and children, including their families. It’s our job as educators to welcome them into our schoolhouses and still deliver a high-quality education for them. I know I probably have a bit of a reputation for being a little demanding and having high expectations and working people pretty hard, but at the end of the day, it’s the right thing to do for our kids.”

With her first year in St. Paul behind her, Carstarphen is excited about setting the bar high for achievement in the coming school year. “I feel like it’s my calling and it’s what I should be doing,” she said.