During the Association of Latino School Administrators and Superintendents (ALAS) conference this past fall, we caught up with board member Alberto Carvalho, superintendent of Miami-Dade County Public Schools, the nation's fourth-largest school district. Carvalho has been with MDCPS since 1990, first as a science teacher, then as a vice principal, a school site administrator and national advocate for secondary school reform, an associate superintendent, and since 2008, superintendent. Next fall, Carvalho will be taking the reins of ALAS from current president Carlos Garcia.
Last year, Carvalho chaired several statewide education committees, including one that helped the state win Race to the Top funding. Carvalho accepted the ALAS position cognizant that what he has done as MDCPS's superintendent—taking a district with a predominately poor Hispanic population and propelling it to one of the highest performing urban districts in the country— can be used as a model for the nation.
Q: Latino students are twice as likely to drop out of high school than African-American students and four to five times as likely as their white counterparts. What are you doing in Miami-Dade that's made a difference?
Carvalho: Our investment and belief is in bilingual education, but also ESL programs that quickly promote children into English-language proficiency without necessarily sacrificing their home language—preserving the rich cultural attachment to their own heritage.
In addition to that is the issue of choice. We are a very large district —345,000 students. One-third of our students are benefiting from parental choice options in academies, in schools of choice, in specialized programs that provide a best fit to their individual needs.
Q: Is providing technology for learning a major initiative for Miami-Dade at this time? How big a difference do you see it making with the achievement gap?
Carvalho: Some folks look at technology in our industry of public education, as an add-on or as a supplement to what happens in the classroom. I don't. I actually see technology as an environment. And the reason why I say that is, I'm a father of a 19-year-old daughter who has allowed me to see the impact that technology has had on the digital natives of today. We older folks approach it, first and foremost, as entertainment, or via a utilitarian perspective that helps us do our job better.
They don't. They live it. This is their environment. So we as educators should leverage their existence in this communication environment that is technology rich. We should leverage that to benefit public education.
Q: How have you leveraged technology in Miami-Dade?
Carvalho: We talk about differentiated instruction in a classroom environment— meeting each child based on his or her own proficiency level. Technology can actually do that and individualize it outside of the classroom, anytime, anywhere.
Just imagine this environment. A virtual environment where the child walks into the classroom and automatically, wirelessly, the work that the child has performed at home, in a 24/7, anytime, anywhere approach, uploads automatically to the teacher's computer. And automatically, it provides an assessment that updates itself daily, not quarterly, to the teacher, and automatically spits out an email to the parent providing feedback on academics, on behavior, on the effort on the part of the child, forcing the parent, and incentivizing the parent, to open up this e-mail and connect directly to the progress of their child.
Q: This sounds like something to watch for in the future.
Carvalho: No. It's in operation right now. We call it "Links to Learning." It is a compilation of independently running software titles and companies that agreed to collaborate in putting together a platform that, from the user's perspective, is seamless, providing 24/7 anytime, anywhere expanding of learning opportunities.
Q: With what resources were you able to do this, and how has it changed the way learning looks?
Carvalho: Everybody talks about the fact that our school calendar is based on the agrarian system. If we believe it to be arcane and archaic, why don't we do something about it? We spend so much time talking about these things that often we convince ourselves we actually did something about it.
So I don't have time to wait for one individual entity to come up with a solution. I wanted something to be put together quickly. Why? Because we lose children as a function of our treating time and space as immutable factors in education—time and space meaning Carnegie Units, minutes in attendance in a school, bell to bell, in a school building in a classroom.
So this was the solution for me to break away and expand the school day in a dramatic way without investing any additional dollars. Time and space are variables in our system. The last bell no longer signifies an end to the learning part of the day. It can be expanded to wherever students go, anytime.
Q: Is that a pilot program in the school district now?
Carvalho: I don't believe in pilot programs [laughs]. I really don't. You know, I believe if it's good for a kid, it's good for every kid.
Q: You've got a lot of kids, though.
Carvalho: So now it's just a matter of having these two systems—my data system, which is tracked by the state, and what the corporate providers bring, a matter of forcing them to talk and lift the individual needs of the children to the surface, providing the equivalent of an IEP for every kid—the equivalent of an IEP that's rich, that's exciting, that speaks a language that kids not only understand but actually like to connect to.
Q:With Links to Learning in place, and up to- the-minute assessment data available to parents, are administrators sensing more parental involvement?
Carvalho: Ideally, the connection of parents to what children are doing in school is an important one. I have a different perspective on what effective parental engagement is. It's not based on a spaghetti dinner or open house night. This must be an ongoing level of participation on the part of parents in the everyday life of a child in school. In the best-case scenario, they actually know what their children are learning and are able to support it.
Q: Wasn't there a good bit of controversy when you became Miami-Dade superintendent in 2008?
Carvalho: Sure. I came into the superintendency at a time when, from a financial perspective, the system was nearly bankrupt, with a total budget in excess of $5 billion, protected with a reserve of $4 million. Health-care costs were expected to grow by $73 million in one single year, we had a bond rating with a negative outlook, with no contracts negotiated, acrimonious relationships between the workforce and the board, between staff and the board, a lack of public credibility in the school system, sagging test scores, and nine schools in the pipeline to be taken over by the state for performance, every one of these schools minority, high poverty schools.
Q: What were your first steps in turning around district finances and school performance?
Carvalho: I don't believe in ever letting a crisis go to waste. We leveraged the beginnings of the economic recession to our benefit. And we forced our system to transform itself very, very quickly on the basis of efficiency and innovation.
When you are a new leader in a community, the initial thrust that you had put behind your vision is important in order to overcome the gravitation pull of the status quo. You need to prove your naysayers wrong. You need to subdue those voices that say it cannot be done.
I knew then that the initial effort had to accomplish two things. One, it had to be dramatic and had to produce results very quickly. Two, the pace of reform was important, and there was no time to waste.
I'm proud to say that we did not fire a single teacher because of economic conditions, unlike every other urban district across America. We protected world languages and elective programs such as arts and music. How? We went after every single other element and renegotiated every single contract.
During that time, we took our reserve from $4 million to $141 million. That's our reserve today. During that same time period, we lost $450 million worth of funding from the state and from local sources.
Every single school improved. We had examples of F to A performance. The lowest-performing senior high schools in our community—Central Senior High School, Edison Senior High School, for example—improved dramatically.
So this has been a progression that we've tracked in terms, first and foremost,of student achievement gains and financial improvement, but always looking toward the future, looking toward continuing to innovate the school system.
Q: Your constituency must be feeling optimistic with the results so far. You have propelled MDCPS to be one of the highest-performing urban districts in the country according to fourth- and eighth grade NAEP results in reading and math.
Carvalho: We had a lot of conversations across the community. I'd go and have "Carvalho Unplugged," you know, coffee conversations with the community, into bookstores, into coffee shops. I established my Superintendent's Business Advisory Council—about 20 very powerful businesspeople that I consult with. And then I have monthly CEO briefings that I organize by industry—real estate agents, insurance brokers, software and textbook publishers, construction companies,manufacturing, the legal world.
It's been important for us, for two years in a row, to roll out new products, a new product line. And I like to talk in that type of fashion. So what is it that our client base is asking for? What are the specific needs from the client's perspective, rather than our own?
As an example, we created Secondary Success Centers for overage middle school kids. It is one of the specialized types of schools that we created. We bring middle school kids to a high school setting, where we've created a school within a school for them. Only they know that they're middle school kids. But they are in an environment where they are around 'like' kids of 'like' age but with a very strong, very robust social network of protection for them, providing an acceleration pathway for them to land in the school where they already are in attendance.
Q: I've never heard about something like this.
Carvalho: Yeah, well, that's why it was innovative [laughs]. After the 51 percent, 52 percent reduction in administrative spending and headcount downtown, now we have a lot of free space. So I created two schools in the downtown building. One is a primary learning center, which houses kindergarden through second grade, the other, iPrep Academy, a high school, is a hybrid model between teacher-and-knowledge-facilitated instruction in a very rich digital, virtual environment, where I played with light, time, space and sound as elements for a new type of school. The school is a childcentric inviting environment. Everything is comfortable. Everything is cool. Everything is colorful. There is background music playing.
Our Autism Laboratory Schools are also defined by their environment: sensory rooms with highly trained teachers, coupled with psychologists, and the best technology available. We call it a "laboratory" because it provides an opportunity for us to bring in teachers and principals and train them on site.
I, by the way, appointed myself as the principal both of the iPrep Academy and the Primary Learning Center, so I am superintendent of schools, but I'm the principal of both an elementary and a senior high school.
Q: Last question. The question of pulling ELL kids out of classes comes up often. Your thoughts?
Carvalho: I don't believe in pulling kids out of anything. I believe in pushing in great opportunities, whether it's professional development for teachers, great educational supplemental solutions to kids, or the creating, above all, of the environments that meet kids where they are, based on who they are, how they communicate, their own learning style and visibility, their own language, their own socioeconomic level.
And that requires new and agile work in education. It's hard work, but it is doable. It is very doable.