His predecessor was ousted amid uproar and a six-figure buyout. The school district one county to the north is embroiled in a chaos of layoffs and criminal prosecutions. Yet Alberto Carvalho took South Florida's most prominent education job.
Any cynical denizen of Miami-Dade County could tell you the Miami-Dade schools superintendent was doomed to fail. So how the hell is the guy not only still chugging three years after taking the job but also at the helm of a district that has avoided teacher layoffs and improved standardized test scores countywide?
"I call it the 'Miami miracle,'" the 46-year-old Carvalho says. "We've struck a very different course from Broward County's. And we're getting very different results."
To the best of our knowledge, Carvalho does not hail from Nazareth, and he hasn't turned water into wine, but around these parts, it's close enough.
At Carvalho's level, education becomes a dollars-and-cents game. He says one of the keys to keeping the district afloat was anticipating the accelerating swan dive of South Florida's economy and making calculated cutbacks that didn't hurt too much. "We've been able to keep our music, physical education, arts, and languages classes while other districts haven't," he boasts. And when it comes to that other stab-you-in-the-eye education issue — merit pay for teachers — Carvalho maintains that he agrees with the local teachers union, which doesn't mind the extra checks as long as a fair base salary remains. A dozen Miami-Dade teachers recently received $25,000 bonuses each. "The process isn't perfect," Carvalho says of merit pay, "but it's important to be respectful of the challenging profession which is teaching."
He knows something about learning on a shoestring. Carvalho grew up poor in Lisbon, Portugal, one of six children of a seamstress mother and an industrial printmaker father, both of whom had left school in the third grade. But Carvalho claims the high school education he received there was on the same level as the classes he took during his first two years of higher education upon immigrating to Fort Lauderdale at age 17 — sorry, Broward Community College. Carvalho, who supported himself by working as a day laborer, waiter, and busboy, eventually won a presidential scholarship to Barry University, where he earned a bachelor's degree.
In 1991, he was hired for his first teaching job, at Jackson Senior High School. He was made assistant principal three years later and has been rocketing through the district ranks for two decades.
Carvalho, who lives in Miami Shores with his wife, says his now-20-year-old daughter inspired one of his ideas — a computer-centric, Ikea-furnished downtown school called iPrep. "She was on her Apple computer," Carvalho recalls, "and she had all of these windows open, with the TV streaming in one corner, and she's chatting and texting while also talking on the house phone. I realized that young people's ability to multitask is like something we've never seen before. And resistance is futile."