Nearly 25 years ago, one classroom at Miami Jackson Senior High held some serious, future political clout.
In front of the class stood Alberto Carvalho, a young physics teacher who would rise to become Miami-Dade schools superintendent.
And in one of the seats sat a teenager named Fedrick Ingram.
On Thursday, Ingram was sworn in as the first black president of the United Teachers of Dade, the union’s third boss in the last 50 years. For the next three, Ingram, 39, will lead a labor group that remains among the most potent in the Southeast, albeit with diminished membership and clout in an era of high-stakes testing and evaluations.
“I’m super excited about being here right now, because if not me then who?” he said from an office at the union’s Biscayne Bay headquarters, seated behind a bowl of lemons. “Our time is now. We’ve seen the lowest point from which we can go.”
Around the country, teachers unions have been on the defensive. Non-unionized charter schools are growing in numbers and student test scores are increasingly factored into job performance, a movement supported recently by the Obama administration’s Race to the Top grant program.
Meanwhile, the dues-paying UTD membership is a shade under 15,000, less than half of the 35,000 employees it represents according to the union. To boost morale and membership and solicit feedback, Ingram and his top lieutenants are visiting every school in the district.
Ingram wants to look at unionizing charter school teachers. He talks dramatically, quoting figures like Muhammad Ali, of wrestling away “education reform” from politicians, and combating a trend in which he says most new Miami-Dade teachers leave the profession in five years.
“I’m as optimistic as any teacher at the beginning of the school year,” he said.
Union observers say he’s got his work cut out for him, despite Gov. Rick Scott’s recent bend toward educators. The state Legislature continues to push test-based education policies, and Florida is still moving toward the implementation of merit pay, which is already in play in Miami-Dade through Race to the Top bonuses.
“I don’t think teachers are in a totally powerless position,” said Brian Peterson, a Florida International University assistant professor of history who publishes the online Miami Education Review. “But he has a difficult situation.”
For Ingram, that’s part of why he campaigned for the job. He has overcome challenges his whole life.
Born in 1973, Ingram grew up in poverty in inner-city Miami. He was shy, largely because of a problem with stuttering that made him wary of speaking until he was 12.
“I wished that I could talk like everybody else,” Ingram said. “Kids can be cruel, and it’s one of the most difficult challenges of any circumstances you can have, not to be able to say your name when a teacher says ‘Who are you?’ ”
But, with the help of music, Ingram overcame his stuttering and graduated from Miami Jackson Senior High in 1991. He attended Bethune Cookman College on a scholarship to play the bassoon.
He became the first member of his family to graduate with a post-secondary degree, majoring in music education. He has a wife, Yvetta, two daughters and a son.