Profile of Alberto Carvalho, 2014 Superintendent of the Year

by Sarah E. Carr


 Alberto Carvalho, superintendent, Miami-Dade County Public Schools, Miami, Fla.
Over the last two decades, many of the nation’s largest urban districts – including Los Angeles, Washington, D.C., Philadelphia, Baltimore and New Orleans – have recruited candidates from outside the system to fill the position of superintendent. Supporters of this strategy argue that, with no prior allegiances holding them back, the outsiders can more easily upend an unacceptable status quo.

The rise of Alberto M. Carvalho, 49, superintendent of Miami-Dade County Public Schools in Florida, offers a stark contrast to this trend. When he was named superintendent 5½ years ago, Carvalho had spent his entire education career moving through an array of positions in Miami’s schools, including science teacher, assistant principal, chief communications officer and lobbyist.

His pacesetting work leading the 345,000-student district since 2008 has landed him plenty of notice, including his new status as the 2014 National Superintendent of the Year award. The honor was announced at AASA’s national conference in Nashville on Feb. 13.

His fans say his deep and broad knowledge of the Dade County system has been Carvalho’s greatest asset, giving him an unusual grasp of both method and message as he has worked to shore up the district’s image in the community and boost graduation rates. The district’s graduation rose by about 15 percentage points in the last five years. At close to 80 percent, it now exceeds the state average.

“In the past, we’ve had administrators who mainly brought in people from the outside,” says Perla Tabares Hantman, the chair of the school board. Carvalho’s “made many changes, while always valuing the people who are already here.”

The irony is that until he started climbing the ranks of the Miami school district 24 years ago, Carvalho was the ultimate outsider – and a virtually penniless one at that. He grew up poor in Lisbon, Portugal, the son of a custodian and a seamstress who each left school after the 3rd grade. Carvalho was the first in his family to graduate from high school. He then worked to save $1,000 to travel as a teenager to the United States, where he hoped to find better educational and professional opportunities.

Arriving in New York, and then Fort Lauderdale, Fla., Carvalho enrolled in a community college and worked as a day laborer and busboy to support himself. He eventually earned a bachelor’s degree with the support of a presidential scholarship and thought he would become a doctor. But over time, Carvalho realized he preferred helping people improve their minds more than their bodies, and he pursued a career in education.

“As I was growing up, equity and access did not exist and I know the painful consequences,” he says. “I feel it is my responsibility not to let my own early education experiences be replicated.”

Some of Carvalho’s success – Miami-Dade won the Broad Prize in Urban Education in 2012 largely for the academic gains of its Hispanic and black students – can be attributed to his ability to strike the right balance. He isn’t afraid of making changes, but he also respects history and tradition. Several of his signature initiatives have been broad and far-reaching, others more targeted and contained.

For instance, he reassigned about 70 percent of the school system’s principals after he took over as superintendent (through a mixture of promotion, demotion, transfers, and termination), but he also reappointed a large number of veteran administrators and long-time colleagues to key posts. And while he involuntarily transferred hundreds of teachers out of the city’s lowest-performing schools, he also shored up professional development across the board.

Carvalho was announced as the 2014 National Superintendent of the Year during Thursday's general session.
Moreover, while he threw his weight behind districtwide efforts to expand parental choice and create performance pay for teachers, Carvalho is equally passionate about smaller initiatives, including two schools where he serves as principal. (Carvalho says he spends about 15 percent of his work week at the schools, which also have an assistant principal.)

“I believe in leading from the front,” he says, “and not asking people to do something that I will not do myself.”

Nor does he ask that of the district’s students – even the most vulnerable and bereft. “I see myself in their eyes, their faces, their big dreams because I once was there,” he says.

(Sarah Carr is a New Orleans-based freelance writer.)