The parking lots at my high school in Miami-Dade County in the 1990s served as cultural bookends, metaphors of the region’s changing demographics. At the northeast end of campus sat what was colloquially known as the “Cuban” parking lot. The southwest corner was known as the “American” parking lot.

At a school that was easily three-quarters Latino, where you chose to park or to hang out said less about your family’s cultural background than it did your tenure in the United States. Were you the child of immigrants or an immigrant yourself? I’d again witness this dynamic 10 years later as a reporter while covering the education beat in Santa Clara County, except the identity match was between recently arrived Chinese immigrants and the American-born children of Chinese immigrants.

It’s a shared experience by those of us navigating where we belong in a country when our feet are planted in two distinct cultures.

In Los Angeles, the lessons in cultural nuance that new L.A. Unified Superintendent Alberto Carvalho learned as the head of Miami-Dade public schools for nearly 14 years will serve him well in a county with a similar, albeit larger, demographic profile: A minority-majority district with a sizable student population whose families speak Spanish at home. A comparable proportion of students living at or below the poverty line. A foreign-born population that outpaces the national average.

Carvalho arrived in Los Angeles less than a month ago with promises to usher in a new era for the district, which has seen a steady decline in enrollment and increasing gaps in student achievement. In Miami-Dade, he is credited – by both friends and foes – for transforming its schools and getting more bang (student achievement results) for its educational buck.

Powerful parallels aside, however, politically “you couldn’t think of two more distinct realities that influence education,” Carvalho recently told me during a chat with EdSource. For one, “Florida over-emphasizes testing,” Carvalho explained.

I know what he means. I was a parent of two young children enrolled in Broward County public schools, the neighboring school district to the north of Miami-Dade, when Florida decided to tie teacher pay to performance. Student assessments were incessant from the first week of school. By January, parents at my children’s elementary school were provided with individualized reports that showed how our children performed on specific state standards. Then the school would arrange for after-school enrichment — for both students and parents — to help move the needle on the student’s performance on those end-of-the-year tests.

In Carvalho’s recently released 100-day plan for LAUSD, he mentions reducing overall testing. He also talks about increasing “choice” throughout the district: “Choice is one of the biggest differences between L.A. and Miami … how we treat the issue of parental options.”

Los Angeles in 2022, Carvalho explained, is closer to Miami-Dade in 2008-09 in terms of school choice – only about 25-30% of students take advantage of special curriculums and magnet programs. In Miami today, 75% of students are enrolled in nontraditional programs afforded under school choice.

“I’m less concerned about the dynamic of dialogue that usually separates people into two camps – charter vs. noncharter,” he said. “I’m more interested in programmatic offerings that benefit kids – period.”

My high school, in the heart of a Miami-Dade community known as Westchester, was transformed under Carvalho’s leadership. Almost 30 years ago, the school held the unofficial title as being one of the less desirable destinations in the neighborhood. Ten years ago, its graduation rate was 81%. Last year, it was 94%, the highest in the school’s history. During that time, the school established a banking and finance magnet program, as well as a computer science programming academy, both of which now draw students from all over the district.

As one friend who is now a principal at a Miami-Dade school put it: “You can be in the same neighborhood and kids on the street can be going to six or seven different high schools.”

She and other former classmates of mine who currently work as teachers and administrators in the district describe Carvalho as a strategic thinker who becomes very involved in the community and does an “exceptional job of influencing others and pushes individuals to be able to help them.” He loves data and expects administrators to know who their lowest-performing students are and how the needs of those students are going to be met.

“He’ll call you on the carpet,” the principal said, “… if you don’t know your stuff.”

Carvalho also intimately understands the challenges within communities like Miami or Los Angeles. The only among his siblings in Portugal to graduate from high school, he came to the United States at age 17, not knowing the language, and overstayed his visa. He found his way from New York to Miami, scrubbing pots and couch-surfing to keep alive his dream of a college education. He eventually worked his way up from science teacher to administrator in the district that he would ultimately lead.

In Miami, Carvalho prioritized the needs of homeless students and their families. He established food pantries in schools, with clothing and food available for both students and their parents. He slammed immigration policies in 2017 when the Trump administration ended a temporary protection program that safeguarded Haitians, Nicaraguans and others from war-torn countries or those that have suffered natural disasters.

In Los Angeles, Carvalho, who speaks five languages, says the district needs to do more to help English learners. He also wants to prioritize all students learning a second language.

“Should it not be a right for every student to be able to speak a second language?” he asked EdSource. “Should that not be an indispensable, fundamental right to public education in LAUSD?”

In a district with the Hollywood film and entertainment industry as its backdrop, Carvalho told me he also wants schools to better incorporate arts into education.

“It’s not just about that which we test periodically – math, language arts, science, social studies,” he said. “It’s about building the whole child.”

As one LAUSD watcher told me last week, Carvalho will have about a 12-14 month “honeymoon” period where he can make his mark and clearly demonstrate his intentions. Time – and money – is of the essence, as Covid relief dollars provide the district with a one-time windfall that can be used to overhaul summer school and after-school programs to begin to narrow the achievement gaps.

Many signs point to Carvalho being the right type of superintendent for a district in desperate need of community relationship-building.

“In L.A., he’s going to have no choice but to build relationships with the community,” my friend, the Miami school principal, said. “That’s the only way he’ll get anything done.”

To get more reports like this one, click here to sign up for EdSource’s no-cost daily email on latest developments in education.

[Read More…]