Riding a cresting wave of accolades, Miami-Dade Superintendent Alberto Carvalho has been named the country’s top schools chief.
The School Superintendents Association announced in Nashville Thursday that Carvalho had won the 2014 National Superintendent of the Year. Carvalho, who attended the event with two school board members, said he was “humbled and honored” and as he accepted his award his first thoughts were of his father.
The award, given to one of the country’s 49 state superintendents of the year, is likely to further ever-present speculation about whether Carvalho will seek public office or a job on a bigger stage. But Carvalho said in an interview Thursday evening that he remains as focused as ever on working for the 350,000 students of Miami-Dade County.
“I love Miami-Dade and I am absolutely dedicated to this journey that we began five-and-a-half years ago,” he said. “What’s left to be done is much greater than what we’ve accomplished. The work is not done, nor am I.”
Carvalho said the award, which comes with no formal responsibilities, is an affirmation of the work of teachers, the school board and his staff and reflects the progress Miami-Dade’s schools have made since he took over in 2008. During the time, the district was facing massive budget cuts and the school board had just parted ways with Rudy Crew, with whom relations had soured. Crew, ironically, had been named National Superintendent of the Year in 2008.
Since then, Dade’s schools have boosted their graduation rates to their highest point, and test scores have steadily risen. In 2012, the district won the Broad Prize, the country’s highest award for urban school districts. The district has also won awards for marked improvement in Advanced Placement participation and performance.
Those gains have risen Miami-Dade’s profile on a national level, said Daniel Domenech, executive director for the Superintendents Association. Domenech said people have taken notice of how Carvalho handled the district’s budget, worked with labor unions and convinced the community to support a $1.2 billion schools construction and technology bond referendum.
“That’s the kind of leadership we want in our schools,” said Domenech.
In winning the award, which has been handed out every year since 1988, Carvalho becomes the second superintendent from Florida to earn the accolade, following Crew.
At the time, Crew and others speculated about whether he’d leave for greener pastures, including a federal post. Instead, he resigned later that year and Carvalho was appointed as his successor.
Carvalho, like Crew at the time, is often the source of rumors that he will leave the district for a job with a higher profile. Even board members speculate. But that’s about where the comparisons end.
Board Member Martin Karp, who along with Chairwoman Perla Tabares Hantman traveled to Nashville, said the board was divided in 2008 and there were concerns about the district’s financial outlook. Not so, today.
“The district is performing in incredible ways,” he said, adding: “It’s a different picture than the way things were back then.”
Tabares Hantman said the comparison was irrelevant. “We all support and respect him. I think he will stay with us as long as he wishes.”
If anything, Board Member Raquel Regalado said the award will likely be a boon to the district when it comes to lobbying for issues at Tallahassee that are important to Miami-Dade Schools, like charter schools, school accountability and technology.
“I think it gives us a lot of credibility, which is really important right now,” said Regalado. “Not only do we have the best superintendent in Florida, we have the best one in the nation and that says something about what we’re doing right now.”
Carvalho, 49, has a contract that is good until 2020. He said Thursday that the award was a vindication of his life, which began in Portugal. He came to the U.S. after graduating high school, and recently said in an interview with Jim Defede on Facing South Florida that he worked construction and kitchen jobs, overstayed his visa and was homeless for a time, sleeping a few nights in a U-Haul truck while attending Broward College.
He graduated from Barry University in 1990 with a bachelors degree in Biology and took a job as a science teacher at Miami Jackson Senior High. He worked his way up the ladder becoming an assistant principal and then leaping into the district’s downtown office and earning a spot in Crew’s administration.
He said he thought a lot Thursday about his father, who had only a third grade education and “whose life could have been so much better, but because of circumstances didn’t turn out that way.”
“I grew up in a one-room apartment with no running water and no electricity, in pretty dramatic poverty,” he said. “This is a vindication of so many different things. I feel like I’m living two lives: my own life and the life my father wanted to live himself. I’ve carried that with me for a long time.”