It's been almost two years since Alberto Carvalho, superintendent of the Miami-Dade County Public Schools, turned down New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio’s offer to lead the nation’s largest school district.
But it appears Carvalho’s last-minute — and, he says, very personal — decision to stay in South Florida paid off. For the second year in a row, the district received an A in the Florida Department of Education’s rating system, and no individual schools were rated an F.
Observers say collaboration between the central office and the school board is one element in the district’s success.
“This long-standing relationship has created an environment where administrators can focus on educating children from a holistic perspective, rather than worry about who the superintendent is going to be every year,” says Eugene Butler, who served as a principal and district administrator in MDCPS.
This stability, Butler adds, extends to the local level: “In a world-class educational system such as MDCPS, it is invaluable for teachers and administrators not to have to overhaul and/or revamp the curriculum every year or two when a new instructional leader is hired”
Carvalho names a few ways that the administration and the board send a "clear message of stability to the community." These include "clearly defined duties and responsibilities," a "well-oiled process" of providing feedback to the board, and extended workshops on larger topics that could have a far-reaching effect on schools.
Signs of improvement
The South Florida district’s graduation rate has reached its highest level ever at 85.4% for the 2017-18 school year, a significant increase from the previous year’s rate at 80.7%. Over the past 10 years, the district has also seen growth in graduation rates among black and Hispanic students, students with disabilities and English learners.
"I'm happy I was here — and am here — to witness that," Carvalho says.
Test scores also continue to improve, according to state data. In 2019 results for the Florida Standards Assessments, English language arts and math scores for MDCPS students in grades 3 through 8 were above the state average. At the high school level, the district’s students scored above the statewide average on four of the five end-of-course exams.
“These scores validate the instructional focus of our teachers and the steadfast dedication of our students, as well as the success we have had in significantly closing the student achievement gap,” Carvalho said when the scores were released.
Reducing what leaders determined to be unnecessary assessments is one shift made in recent years to allow for more instructional time. “We put minutes back into the classroom,” Gisela Feild, administrative director of the district’s Assessment, Research, and Data Analysis department, said in 2017, adding the additional time allowed more time for students to be pulled out for additional instruction in areas where they needed support.
The 345,000-student district also recently launched an initiative to provide students entering middle school with additional social-emotional and mental health support in response to a trend where families were beginning to choose the K-8 configuration over the traditional 6-8 model. Middle school teachers are also participating in a book study on incorporating SEL into instruction, particularly for English learners.
MDCPS has a broad array of magnet schools, with more than 72,000 students participating in one of 380 magnet programs spread across 114 schools. Twenty-eight of the schools have earned national certification from Magnet Schools of America (MSA), and 14 have received a “demonstration” designation. Miami Lakes Educational Center, which emphasizes both academics and career and technical education, is among those that have received national attention.
The public has expressed strong support for the district. In 2018, voters approved a property tax referendum allowing the district to negotiate a contract with United Teachers of Dade (UTD) that includes pay increases ranging from 12.5% to 22.75%, as well as bonuses.
"It's a community that appreciates the work of its public schools," Carvalho says.
Voters approved a $1.2 billion bond issue in 2012, even as the nation was still slowly recovering from the recession, Butler notes. A 2018 annual report from the Bond Advisory Committee showed more than half of the building and renovation projects scheduled have been completed in spite of the disruption of Hurricane Irma in 2017.
MDCPS, and Carvalho specifically, have also received recognition for not allowing the growing school choice movement to create a negative climate in the district.
“Miami-Dade didn’t merely adapt,” Ron Matus, director of policy and public affairs for Step Up for Students, a Florida nonprofit that provides private school scholarships, wrote in a recent Education Next article. “The changes under Carvalho say so much more about him, the district, the possibilities for public education. They suggest school districts can rise to the occasion in the era of choice and customization, and, perhaps not only evolve, but lead.”