Moving from the Impossible to the Inevitable: Alberto Carvalho's Story

When Alberto Carvalho became superintendent in 2008, Miami-Dade Public Schools faced one of its lowest graduation rates in history, with an overall 60 percent of students graduating in four years – some schools as low as 34 percent. At least 50 of the 500 schools had 100 percent poverty rates, and nearly 77,000 students were English language learners. And, the school district was facing certain bankruptcy.

That year, Carvalho made some tough decisions and under Carvalho’s guidance and leadership, the school district went from near bankruptcy to operating a $4.8 billion balanced budget.

“If you see a tsunami coming, you cannot outrun it,” Carvalho said. “You cannot outswim. You cannot dive under it. The only way to survive a tsunami is to ride the top of it.”

Climbing the wave, Carvalho overhauled the school system. He improved outcomes for disadvantaged students – bringing advanced academic programs to every high school – boosting students taking college courses from 450 to 8,300. He also employed the right teachers and leaders to drive success within the district. And in the 2012-2013 school year, he raised $7 million, which was matched 10:1 by the federal government to make all county schools wireless.

“Anyone’s impossible can become everybody’s inevitable,” Carvalho said. “We have to get back to a better place, and that better place starts with education. As a nation of innovation, it’s our moral priority to get back to a better place, and that better place starts today.”

Every Child Matters

Carvalho, an immigrant, arrived in Miami from Portugal at the age of 17, speaking no English. Within four hours of coming to America, he was in a sweaty New York kitchen washing dishes. His father, a custodian, and mother, a seamstress, always pushed Carvalho to pursue his dreams; dreams that would lead him to be the first of his six siblings to graduate from high school and to attend college. He never waited for opportunities—Carvalho seized them. Working full-time while attending community college, then college, he learned that his hard work and perseverance would pay off. He ascended from a science teacher to becoming superintendent of the nation’s fourth largest public school system.

“I’m an American by choice and not by chance,” Carvalho said. “There is no challenge that can prevent us from achieving our God-given dream, but it takes one part destiny and another part personal design through courage, perseverance, dedication, passion and compassion.”

Solving Education Challenges

Bringing education reform and opportunities to students can take years to accomplish, but Carvalho says patience isn’t an option.

“I see myself in the eyes and faces of the children we teach,” Carvalho said. “It’s a different child, but still the same child. Every minute matters. [Our children] deserve the best we can give them.”

Every year, more than 1.2 million U.S. students drop out of high school – a student every 26 seconds. Research has shown that high school graduates have more career opportunities and job security, are less likely to end up in jail and enjoy a better quality of life.[1]

“For those who believe that education reform takes 10 years to accomplish, I say, ‘Rubbish,’” Carvalho said in a recent speech at Dartmouth College. “How many high school dropouts does it take for it to be too many?”

Focused on finding education solutions for minority and disadvantaged students, the district launched three new and specialized senior high schools in 2010: iPrep Academy, the International Studies Preparatory Academy of Gables and the Medical Academy for Science and Technology (MAST) at Homestead. Over the last several years, these programs have dramatically improved graduation rates. iPrep and MAST were recognized as Newsweek’s 2015 “Beating the Odds” list, which identifies schools that do an excellent job of preparing students for college while overcoming the obstacles posed by students at an economic disadvantage.

These efforts earned him recognition as the 2014 National Superintendent of the Year, the 2016 MSA Superintendent of the Year and the 2016 McGraw Prize in K-12 Education. His district also earned the 2012 Broad Prize, which recognizes public school systems that show the greatest academic performance and improvement while reducing achievement gaps.

At the McGraw Prize ceremony, Carvalho led with his appreciation of those he works with and the students they impact each day:

“I work with the most talented team of educators anywhere in America. Each day, 23,000 teachers and support staff show up for work in Miami. They make the impossible possible for the half a million students who seek hope and opportunity in every single minute of every hour they spend in our classrooms.”

Today, Carvalho’s school district has the highest graduation rates of minority students of any school system in the country. In the 2014-2015 school year, graduation rates reached a record high of 78.1 percent, exceeding the state average.

To learn more about Alberto Carvalho, visit http://superintendent.dadeschools.net/.
[1] http://www.americaspromise.org/high-school-graduation-facts-ending-dropout-crisis