It's hard to imagine more than a handful of jobs more difficult than that of Superintendent of Miami-Dade County Public Schools. The nation's 4th-largest school system faces challenges far beyond the usual budget woes and teacher merit pay squabbles: students from 160 countries speak 56 different languages, the district is tasked with providing quality education for all in a city with jaw-dropping income disparity, there are 53,000 employees to manage, and Dade County's history of managing anything effectively is, well, let's just say it's checkered.
But Alberto Carvalho, who had worked his way through university after immigrating from Portugal, leapt at the chance in 2008 after the plagued district's previous leader was ousted amid much controversy and financial drama. And though MDCPS still faces their fare share of battles -- crumbling facilities, for one -- the results have been impressive: 13 failing 'F' schools have been reduced to none, math and reading scores show MDCPS students rank above their peers in other large, urban districts, and the county just celebrated its highest graduation rate of all time.
With the 2012 first day jitters now behind him, we asked Carvalho about the future of Miami-Dade schools, what's new in classrooms this year, and what he's most proud of.
What new programs or initiatives hitting classrooms this year are you most excited about?
Two of our most innovative new programs are iPrep and iTech. iPrep Academies are magnet schools or school-based programs that provide students in grades 9-12 with the opportunity to accelerate in the high school coursework in a technology-rich, non-traditional academic setting, providing 24/7 anytime, anywhere learning. In the iTech program, students build a foundation where they can either pursue the game animation route, or the game programming route. At the end of the program, students will be industry certified in Flash, Adobe Photoshop, along with other certifications.
Are you satisfied with the integration of technology?
Eliminating the digital divide is the moral imperative of our generation. We are getting where we need to be, but technology is a constantly changing commodity, and we see changes and improvements made every day. Earlier this year, we were able to raise $7 million which will be matched ten-to-one by the federal government to make all of our schools wireless. That is the “behind-the-wall” side of it.
We still need to make accommodations for a good deal of the hardware and software that is on the classroom side of the wall. We’ve also seen incredible support from the private sector which has made laptops, digital learning, and more available to our students, helping to create the 24/7 anytime, anywhere learning that is becoming a necessity.
You criticized FCAT changes after a spring riddled with scoring errors and adjustments. What do you think is a better method for gauging how well students are doing?
It took a lot of convincing, but eventually, the state made concessions after recognizing that major drops in school grades would have occurred.
Common sense and research both indicate that student learning is maximized in sound and safe learning environments. There is a need for multiple measures--not relying on one specific test--as well as focusing on learning gains of selected students such as English Language Learners and Students with Disabilities. Holding off on some of the triggers helped mitigate those losses.
The state did not, however, address the bigger issues of including Students with Disabilities and English Language Learners. These students require assessments that are more appropriate for their needs, and if those changes are implemented it will make the assessment much more equitable for these students and for their schools.
You were outspoken in support of NMSHS valedictorian Daniela Pelaez, who faced deportation. Do you see a role for yourself or the district in terms of advocating for immigration reform?
I think that it’s crucial for educators to take a stand where students are concerned, including on immigration issues. A student who is living in constant fear that he or his parents could be taken away in the middle of the night is not a student who can learn effectively because of that impending fear.
Fortunately, we are seeing a return to reason and the opening of the door of opportunity for deserving students who want nothing more than to give back to the only community and nation that they have ever known. This was evident in Daniela’s case as well as the recent federal ruling that Florida students cannot be charged higher non-resident tuition because their parents may be in the country illegally.
What do you consider the great strengths of Miami-Dade public schools?
MDCPS is an organization that is blessed with a richness of diversity and a strong, firmly-committed team of educators... The positive results are obvious in our consistently high scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP): our Hispanic students are ranked number one on Advanced Placement students in the nation, and our African-American students are ranked seventh in the percentage scoring 3 or above.
Miami-Dade’s Financial Management was also awarded top honors by the Council of the Great City Schools and has gone from being nearly bankrupt to having increased reserves by 3,600 percent.
South Florida is one of those places that welcomes new people from all over the world, just as I was welcomed here as an immigrant. We have students and teachers with extremely diverse backgrounds participating in the daily exercise of education, and they do it with an ease and grace that is beyond compare.
What's been your proudest moment in your 4 years as superintendent?
This year graduation took on a special meaning, because it was my first time to see a graduating class through a principal’s eyes. The graduating class of iPREP Academy, a high school where I serve as principal, celebrated their commencement, and I could not have been more proud to celebrate with them.
Also, the district’s graduation rate has increased by double digits to 77.7 percent, a historic high.
What is the most common misconception you hear about Miami-Dade public schools?
That somehow the most revered institution in America no longer works. Public education is existentially essential to America’s democracy. The flawed rationale that we must follow innovation elsewhere in the world to remain competitive rather than daring to reinvent ourselves into a better version of us is one of the most harmful perspectives we can adopt. We are the nation of innovation!
What's the biggest challenge facing the district in 2012-13?
The first part is creating the environment that will sustain the continued adaptation and reinvention of public education in a new and fast-paced competitive environment. From the choice, accountability and international economic perspectives, the tsunami of change is coming, if it is not here already. We chose to surf it rather than succumb to it.
Proper school funding has been our other biggest challenge over the last several years and will remain a challenge in the year ahead. We have been able to make ends meet, and succeed even to the point that we are an unprecedented fifth-time nominee for the prestigious Broad Prize, the equivalent of the Nobel Prize in American education. The state has eliminated funding for school construction and maintenance, and that’s why we are emphasizing the importance of the bond referendum. The community has a unique window of opportunity to make this happen, and we will be working very hard to ensure the passage of this referendum.