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What's Behind The Turnaround At Miami Public Schools?


For years, Miami-Dade County Public Schools faced problems common to many urban schools: low attendance, high dropout rates, poor grades. But since 2008, Alberto Carvalho has been in charge of the nation's fourth largest school district, and there've been some noticeable improvements in Miami schools. More students are graduating, fewer are dropping out, test scores are up and the district's budget crisis has faded.

NPR's Claudio Sanchez has this profile of the man some call a miracle worker.

CLAUDIO SANCHEZ, BYLINE: What Alberto Carvalho has accomplished since he became Miami-Dade's superintendent in 2008, few would have thought possible - but miraculous?

ALBERTO CARVALHO: There's been no divine intervention. I'm not a miracle worker.

SANCHEZ: Carvalho has been smart about giving others credit.

CARVALHO: I believe the credit goes to principals and teachers every single day.

SANCHEZ: When Carvalho took over, the country was in the depths of the recession. The district was nearly bankrupt. The school board and former superintendent were at each others' throats, and the state was threatening to shut down the district's worst schools. But Carvalho says there was a bright side.

CARVALHO: It was a window of opportunity.

SANCHEZ: He quickly made peace with the school board, which was seen as inept, disreputable and hopelessly divided. Current board member Raquel Regalado says Carvalho has helped change that image.

RAQUEL REGALADO: I think that what Alberto brings to the table is more of a unifying philosophy. You know, you don't see the level of disrespect that you saw.

SANCHEZ: Regalado says four years ago, people would tune in to watch school board meetings on TV expecting fist fights. It was like watching a bad telenovela.

With all that drama behind him, Carvalho then took an ax to the budget, slashing more than $2 billion, incredibly without firing a single classroom teacher. And this fall, he is even giving them a 2.7 percent pay raise. Quite a feat, says Brian Peterson, a professor at Florida International University.

BRIAN PETERSON: Another astonishing and wonderful thing that Carvalho did is he fired, he laid-off massive numbers of administrators. So millions and millions of dollars were saved, which is something that really is needed in this district.

SANCHEZ: Peterson writes an online education newsletter about the district. He's seen superintendents come and go since the 1980s. He says Carvalho is different in that he was a true insider - a former principal, a lobbyist for the district, then assistant superintendent.

Carvalho's first job, though, was here at Miami Jackson Senior High.

CARVALHO: I came in as a physics, chemistry and calculus teacher. So that's the wing that I taught. I taught on the third floor.

SANCHEZ: The 48-year-old Carvalho stands in one of the school's open air hallways pointing to a collection of old black and white pictures of the school. When he taught here in the 1990s, he was known as Mr. Armani, always impeccably dressed, like he is today in a tailored navy blue suit, crisp white shirt and bright blue tie. Jackson was a tough school, he says.

CARVALHO: The challenge back then was the same challenge that we face today: high poverty, a great deal of diversity, language challenges, a significant percentage of students who had disabilities. And I saw in those kids my own existence a few years ago.

SANCHEZ: Forty years ago, as an immigrant child from Portugal in a new country starting from scratch, Carvalho was not unlike the kids who arrive in Miami every day not knowing English and parents with little or no schooling.

CARVALHO: Parents did not understand their rights. A lot of them were too busy to orient their children, just trying to earn a living. So it was coming face-to-face with something I actually remembered.

SANCHEZ: Today, 74 percent of the 347,000 students in the system live in poverty. Many wouldn't eat if it wasn't for the meals they get at school. This has made it much, much tougher to get them at grade level.

When Carvalho took over, nine out of 10 students in the district's poorest performing high schools, including Jackson, were failing. Carvalho fired several principals and lured the best teachers to the worst schools by offering something akin to combat pay.

CARVALHO: And the results within the first year were amazing.

SANCHEZ: The percentage of ninth graders reading at grade level shot up from eight to 25 percent. Scores on state tests improved. But for all the progress students have made, many have not, and Miami-Dade's high schools are still performing quite poorly. At Jackson Senior High, for example, three out of four ninth graders today are still not reading at grade level.

NATHANIEL WILCOX: That's a travesty. So if you can't read, you can't even - that means you can't even fill out an application.

SANCHEZ: Nathaniel Wilcox is director of PULSE, People United to Lead the Struggle for Equality. He says Carvalho is letting way too many kids fall through the cracks.

WILCOX: A lot of our kids are drowning. And he's a life guard, and he's not doing his job.

SANCHEZ: Professor Brian Peterson shares the same concerns. He says some schools only look like they're doing better because principals are pushing struggling students out.

PETERSON: So they're sending them to places like GED programs, to adult vocational education. But many, many of these students don't actually register. They're on the streets. And so this is being swept under the rug.

CARVALHO: What he just said is absolutely nonsensical. There is no such thing as pushing out students.

SANCHEZ: If that was true, says Carvalho, Florida's Department of Education would be all over him. He insists the district's improved test scores and record 80 percent graduation rate have been validated by the state and outside organizations.

In 2012, Miami-Dade won The Broad Foundation prize for being the highest performing urban school system in America. The school board rewarded Carvalho with a five-year, $2 million contract extension. He says he's staying on one condition.

CARVALHO: I've told this community, I've told this board many times: The day that I feel that the political pressures prevent me from doing what I believe needs to be done, I leave.

SANCHEZ: That's unlikely. Carvalho's political skills have endeared him to the school board and key groups in the community. Still, he won't confirm or deny that he's talked to other large school systems in search of a new superintendent. If there's one enduring truism in public education, though, it's that even the most successful leaders come with a sort of expiration date. Then it's off to the next school system in need of a miracle worker. Claudio Sanchez, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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