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Profile: Alberto Carvalho

Miami-Dade's leader brings change and results to the nation’s fourth-largest district.

Alberto Carvalho tells me he is "reasonably impatient," and it's soon clear that his self-description might have one word too many. Carvalho seems to have only one direction, straight forward, and it's obvious that it doesn't matter whether the goal in front of him is big or small. At this moment, he's coming out of a luncheon, and he spots hundreds of mini cupcakes lined up. He quickly glances at his colleague. "There's no red velvet. I already checked," she says. Carvalho turns away abruptly. He wants coffee, but he walks briskly past the urns of Starbucks brew ("American coffee," he says, half under his breath). He finds a coffee shop and gets an espresso.

Carvalho's been going since 7:30 a.m., and today's duties will take him well into the night. Although his actions this morning are not important per se, they fit the pattern of how he's running the nation's fourth-largest school district, Miami-Dade County Public Schools. For example, when Carvalho, who's led the district since 2008, became frustrated at the outdated model of many district schools, he simply created a pair of new schools and named himself principal. He opened the Primary Learning Center in 2009, an elementary school based at district headquarters. The next year, he added iPreparatory Academy ("My signature school," he says with pride), a high school that integrates treadmills, music, and small learning spaces with experiental learning, online education, and mandatory internships. If that's not enough, he still makes appearances in the classroom, teaching physics, "but not every day," he adds.  

Exactly how has this micro-manager, in a little more than three years, been able to change so much, from how the district spends its annual $4 billion budget to how it examines data to how parents now advocate for their children? He's glad you asked.

Q Tell me about the two schools you started.
A I wanted to create new school models using all the theory and research available. The Primary Learning Center, a laboratory school, is deemed [by us] a "super school," with a waiting list of 300 kids. Teachers can monitor students with two-way mirrors without intruding on their work. Every kid learns one or two languages. They plant their own gardens.

iPrep is better felt than described. It is loud; I mean that literally and figuratively. The space itself is confusing to adults. There are no classrooms, no bells, no industrial furniture. It's Ikea-furnished. With exercise machines and a café, it's like Starbucks meets Bally's. Parents can't understand it, but kids know what to do. It's the most revolutionary new schooling model. It's a blended learning model with digital content. Students are there about half the time; the other half they can be working online or participating in mandatory internships. Because it's just a year old, the only bit of data we have is in science. Out of 45 high schools in the district, [iPrep students] scored second highest. [A recent visitor told Carvalho, "I get it. This is how I live. I shop information. I shop entertainment."]

I believe in franchising great ideas, so we opened four additional iPreps. I want to create a viral and intellectual infection.

Q You altered the spending landscape by pouring more resources into the poor-performing schools. How did you accomplish this?
A Therein lies one of the biggest problems with public education. Many people don't get past the policy fights into the implementation phase. Here's how we get around that: We use the power of research. You have to have the political courage to reach through the barriers that exist. It begins with great leaders and teachers. In 2010, I hired Nikolai Vitti as assistant superintendent of education and I assigned him the toughest schools in the district. (There were 19 then, and now 26.) These schools never earned higher than an F [in Florida's scoring system]. I changed the way we hire teachers, added Teach For America graduates for a quick injection of high energy, and we recruited the most qualified leaders.

Within one year, schools went from F to A, F to C. Miami Edison Senior High School is 99 percent Haitian and very poor. We had a 20 percent increase in graduation, from 52 percent to 72 percent, which is near the statewide average. This is imminently doable work. The biggest challenge is not arriving at the strategy; it's really the implementation.

Q Talk about how you monitor school data and decide where funds are needed.
A We have something we call "datacom." I and my entire cabinet meet with the regional superintendents and principals of schools. They have to speak to the data [from their students] and identify causality. My intention is not to put them on the hot seat, but to put myself and my cabinet on the hook. They can make a pitch for investments, and we can make rapid deployment to their schools. There has to be a huge sense of urgency. Requests can range from funds to bolster security to more money to expand a successful program. Back at the schools, the leaders have data chats with teachers, and teachers do the same with their students.

Q Your methods must sometimes rub staff the wrong way. How do you get them to buy in to your changes?
A Buy-in is critical. I lead by example; I lead from the front. There was political value for me to appoint myself as principal of two schools. If people identify with you and see that you are willing to take the risks, then I think they embrace it. One big boost is that while many districts around the country and around the state were cutting back teachers and elective programs, we haven't fired a single teacher for economic reasons in the last three years. And we didn't reduce elective programs.

Q How do you get parents to buy in to your changes and support their children's education?
A I use the theory of supply and demand out of the playbook of economics. The time is now for parental involvement and community engagement to go past spaghetti dinners and back-to-school nights. It needs to be strategic, long-term, and constant. When I have come upon obstacles, I've leveraged parents as a means of forcing the agenda. It's empowering the community. I teach them how to demand. It's making parents dangerous enough to know what's good and what they should ask for.

Q As the incoming president of the Association of Latino Administrators and Superintendents, explain the importance of the group's work and the growing awareness of Hispanic education, from the White House on down.
A The Hispanic, or Latino, individuals in this country are not only a huge representational group in our schools, but by 2025 they will make up 25 percent of all students. We need to recognize and address the needs of the future workforce. If this is going to be a significant group in our nation, economic viability is key. Because this is the largest and fastest-growing segment of the country, if we find some solutions for this group, we find solutions for America.

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