Photo: Nick Garcia
Miami-Dade's Alberto Carvalho built national reputation upending the school model
At the time the Miami-Dade school board promoted Alberto Carvalho to superintendent of the nation’s fourth-largest school district, one thing that became very important didn’t get attention.
The focus in 2008 was on the way he was hired. The system was neck deep in the latest of its long history of crises: Budget gaps from the Great Recession and district bungling that made them worse; failing schools; a fractious school board. The superintendent at the time was being shown the door. Everyone knew Carvalho, then an associate superintendent, was a hot commodity. Smart and shrewd, he was such a top prospect that the Pinellas County school system in St. Petersburg had an offer on the table to make him its superintendent.
Rather than lose him, a divided Miami-Dade school board rushed through his hiring, which set off a chain of complaints about process.
What escaped coverage at the time was that Carvalho, a district lifer, harbored frustration over what he now describes as “the very monolithic, one-size-fits-all, inflexible schooling model.” In fact, he says, “One size fits none.” Schools, he believed, were based on an outdated agrarian-industrial idea, designed to suit adults, not students, and funded according to archaic standards of number of bodies, seat time and school days.
“We made a determination back then, in the middle of one of the worst economic crises in America, to reinvent the school system,” he says. “And one of the tenets of our reinvention was the dramatic expansion of choice.”
Carvalho brought an immigrant’s drive and a Horatio Alger story to bear. He grew up in his native Portugal with much in common with the students in the Miami-Dade district he later headed. He was poor, the son of a custodian and seamstress, the only one among six siblings to finish high school. He arrived, undocumented, in New York at 17 and worked as a dishwasher and day laborer. Some nights, he slept in the back of a truck. He made his way to South Florida and to Broward College.
In South Florida, he worked at a restaurant owned by the late Republican Congressman E. Clay Shaw, who helped him obtain a student visa. He earned a bachelor’s in biology from Barry University in 1990.
He taught high school physics in one of Miami- Dade’s least desirable high schools. Then, as now, he was fit and dressed well — so well, the Miami Herald once said in a profile, that students called him Mr. Armani. He rose through the ranks: Assistant principal, district spokesman, chief lobbyist and grant administrator, associate superintendent. His 18 years with the district left him well-grounded in teaching, communicating, getting funding and dealing with the Legislature and the state Department of Education.
The district he took over in 2008 is unique, even for Florida. Its student body is majority Hispanic at 72.2%, with 19.5% black and 6.5% white. Students come from 150 countries and speak 56 languages. A fifth are learning English. About 68% come from low-income families.
If ever there were a district where leadership could blame student demographics for poor performance, Miami-Dade was it. The high school graduation rate the year before he took over was what he later called a “shameful” 59%. That low district-wide number masked even poorer performance at some schools — as low as what he calls a “criminal” 36% at one school. Seven high schools were rated F under the state grading program. The state wanted some shut down.
Carvalho promised he would keep them open. That earned him points in the community. The quick action he took earned him more. He raised money from businesses to pay students to get tutored so that they wouldn’t choose jobs over study. Carvalho removed nine high school principals from underperforming high schools. To close the gap in the $5.5-billion budget, he cut approximately half the district headquarters staff and found efficiencies that spared teachers from layoffs, taxpayers from increases and schools from closing. And as the district stabilized, he and the school board pursued choice as the path to equity.
“Ability is evenly distributed. However, access and opportunity aren’t,” he says. “So we have rushed to create choice programs in areas and ZIP codes where they did not exist. I know we opted for a very different route than many school systems that fought parental choice. We recognized the tsunami of choice was upon us, and rather than be engulfed and annihilated by it, we chose to ride on top of it.”
To ride the wave, he went all in on choice, and he innovated. In his first year, he launched a new model school called iPrep in the newly vacant space at district offices. The concept featured no bells, lots of tech, flexibility and a student-driven learning pace that was “highly monitored” by teachers. Started with just pre-K and kindergarten, it now encompasses pre-K-12th grade. It’s on U.S. News & World Report’s list of the 100 best public high schools — No. 6 in the state and No. 72 nationally. At 4,000, it has the longest wait list of any Miami-Dade school. Carvalho, who’s fluent in five languages, including Spanish, remains principal, and he has spread iPrep as a method throughout the district.
Another example: Miami parents know that the maritime-themed magnet school on Key Biscayne, MAST Academy, perennially highly rated by U.S. News, is a high school you want your children to attend. But unless you live nearby or provide transportation, your kids will be on the bus for hours each day. Carvalho “franchised” the concept to open three more. He likewise “franchised” the New World School of the Arts, a nationally renowned downtown arts school, by opening three more. He opened district-managed but private sector-run charter schools — the first to do so nationally, the district says. He says they cost the district zero to build.
The district also broke from Florida’s traditional mold of elementary, middle and high schools to establish K-8, 4-8, 6-12 and 9-14 schools. Students can choose from a range of specialties: Dual-language schools, schools with an emphasis on finance, or robotics, or artificial intelligence or the Cambridge international education program or others.
Cavalho says Miami-Dade today has more than 1,000 choice schools — magnet schools, nonmagnet “schools of choice,” career academies, single-gender schools, district-managed charters and charters not run by the district. The percentage of Miami-Dade district students in choice schools has risen to 74% from 30% when Carvalho started.
“Miami-Dade is the freest market for K-12 education in the country,” says John Kirtley, a Tampa private equity fund co-founder and the volunteer chairman of Step Up for Students, the non-profit that administers the state’s K-12 scholarship programs. “I am a huge admirer of Alberto Carvalho. Unlike many public school officials, he embraces choice and competition. He does not fear it. It is no coincidence that Miami-Dade is the best-performing large urban school district in the country.”
The graduation rate for district-run schools has risen to 93%. Nearly half — 47% — of schools are A-rated, 99% are rated C or better and none has an F. Black and Hispanic students outperform peers in the state and nation. Four of the nine Florida public high schools on U.S. News’ list of the top 100 such schools in the nation are in Miami-Dade. Twelve of the top 20 in Florida also are Miami- Dade public schools.
Miami-Dade’s success, Carvalho told a meeting of education choice advocacy group American Federation for Children in 2019, is important beyond the district because “the face of Miami today is a glimpse of the face of America in 10 to 20 years.” Miami-Dade, he has said, is “that impossible district with high poverty and diversity where these things should not happen. But they have happened, and I contend to you, if we were able to do it in Miami-Dade, there is no reason as to why this miracle story cannot be replicated across America.”
Miami-Dade continues to be a competitive market. In the year before Carvalho took over, 15.3% of school-age children in Miami-Dade attended private school. That share increased to 17.9% by 2019-20, the year the pandemic struck.
Carvalho’s been a Florida and national superintendent of the year. The Council of Great City Schools gave him its highest honor for an urban educator. In 2016, he received the Harold W. McGraw, Jr. Prize in Education for leadership in raising standards and graduation rates. He has a bushel of honorary doctorates and awards from, among others, Portugal and Mexico.
In 2012, the district won the Broad Foundation’s $1-million prize for urban education. Along with student achievement, the foundation honored the district for its cutting-edge use of data to drive decision-making, help underperforming students and schools and spread to all schools the teaching methods and innovations that work best. (Orange County in Central Florida is the most recent Florida winner of the Broad award, having shared the prize with a Georgia district in 2014.)
“Alberto has done an incredible job with Miami-Dade public schools,” says Patricia Levesque, CEO of the Foundation for Excellence in Education. “Their student performance is incredible. They continue to be this model for other mega-districts to look at on how they’re improving student performance and surpassing their demographic composition.”
His tenure hasn’t been without missteps. The district hired a private company, K12, to build an online learning platform in time for the start of the 2020-21 pandemic school year. The rollout was a mess. As teachers struggled with it — their work would disappear — and as the company awaited a signed contract, Carvalho hit up the company for a $1.57-million donation to a district-run foundation that was to spread the money to teachers by $100 gift cards. A district inspector general report in June found no violation but said that asking for the large donation on the eve of the company awaiting a signed contract “created an appearance of impropriety.” It said the donation should be returned. The foundation’s board is scheduled to meet in October to decide. Cavalho doesn’t want the foundation to give it back. A law firm representing him also objected to the finding of an appearance of impropriety after concluding no one acted improperly.
Carvalho has also had “good days and bad days” with the teachers union, union President Karla Hernandez-Mats told the Miami Herald in 2019. Hernandez-Mats declined to be interviewed for this article. She told the Herald he has collaborated with the union, cared for children’s wellbeing and has improved conditions in the district. In at least some teacher circles, he’s credited with showing that parents don’t need to leave the traditional school district to obtain choice.
The union and Carvalho have tussled over pay. A group of teachers sued several years back over raises they felt they were owed. More recently, teachers, Carvalho and the school board, like other districts in Florida, went round and round about the terms of opening. Miami-Dade schools didn’t open for in-person instruction until October.
During the pandemic, Miami-Dade schools received $1.1 billion in federal money to address the impact lockdowns had on student learning. This summer, to catch students up, Miami-Dade opened 179 schools and operated from 300 community-based camps to provide education — essentially year-round schooling — for 65,000 students. In a normal summer, Miami-Dade has summer school for about 12,000 students.
Miami-Dade nearly lost Carvalho in 2018 when he accepted the job of chancellor of New York City schools. Then, in a Miami-Dade school board meeting broadcast live that saw board members singing his praises and businesspeople and school children begging him to stay, he reversed himself. Many in Miami-Dade celebrated, but how long he will stay is an open question. He’s been superintendent longer than his three predecessors combined. Two of the previous four got sacked. He already has been superintendent about four times as long as the typical urban school chief. Speculation through the years has put him as a contender for county mayor, Congress or governor.
“Every election season the same question is asked of me,” Cavalho, 56, says. “As long as the internal mixture of conditions are appropriate for us to put kids first, I am committed to this job. When those conditions change, then it’s time for me to reassess where I am.”
As a 17-year-old, Fedrick Ingram, now an officer with the American Federation of Teachers national union, had Carvalho as his science teacher at Miami Jackson High. They’ve known each other since then as Carvalho moved up in the district and Ingram returned from college to become a district teacher, became 2006 Miami-Dade teacher of the year and later the local teachers union president and state teachers union president. “To say the least, I have a lot of respect for Alberto. Obviously, as a union president and superintendent, we didn’t see eye-to-eye on every issue,” says Ingram, secretary-treasurer of the American Federation of Teachers, a 1.7-million national teachers union, and past-president of the Florida Education Association, the 140,000-member state teacher group. But, Ingram says, “I think he’s always had the best of intentions. Alberto has shown himself to be a leader among leaders. Many superintendents look to him for guidance.” Ingram credits Carvalho with navigating the district through financial difficulties and local and state political changes. He recalls working with Carvalho on bringing choice to the district schools. Carvalho, he says, has shown parents and the larger community that children can get the education they need within district schools.
Read more in Florida Trend's August issue.
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