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New teachers union boss rose from poverty to president

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.

After graduating, Ingram returned to Miami-Dade County and took a $33,000 job as director of the Lake Stevens Middle School band. He later taught at Booker T Washington and Miami Carol City senior high schools.

In the early 2000s, he hosted a band camp for kids who couldn’t afford one. He also showed devotion to his co-workers.

Valencia Gabriel, a special education reading and math teacher who taught alongside Ingram, said he taught her three children to play tuba, clarinet and saxophone. And when her husband died, he visited her house every Saturday and sat with her and her children for hours.

“He gave me his time, and he didn’t have to,” said Gabriel, 43. “He kept me going.”

Ingram’s work and reputation won him Miami-Dade teacher-of-the-year honors in 2005. With the award comes a quasi-spokesman role for teachers, so he began to interact with politicians and district leaders. He met his union predecessor, Karen Aronowitz, who at the time was in her first term, and leading the financially weak union past the downfall of disgraced longtime union boss Pat Tornillo, who’d used union funds to support a lavish lifestyle.

“He represents the future of our union,” Aronowitz said. “He brings a fresh voice to the issues affecting teachers and educational support professionals.”

He also brings a powerful voice, and a strong public persona, where Aronowitz acknowledges she was “green” when she became president in 2004. Aronowitz declined to run for reelection this winter, and endorsed Ingram, her secretary/treasurer.

When Ingram joined the union’s leadership and left the classroom, some found it bittersweet. But Stephanie King, a retiree who helped select Ingram as teacher of the year, said his ascension has been for the better.

“There’s so many things we want the union to become. And I see great hope in him serving in that capacity,” she said. “I think we need him.”

Ingram comes into power at a critical juncture. A new evaluation system becomes the basis for pay and employment in 2014. Healthcare and salaries are on the table. And Carvalho has made it clear he is against the longstanding “step” pay scale, which rewards educators based on length of tenure rather than job performance.

Ingram also has his critics, who were emboldened in February when the election he won was marred by malfunctioning equipment. The process took more than 36 hours, and afterward teachers sent out pictures of vote counters with pens in their hands and questioned vote tallies that showed more votes cast at some schools than actual voters.

Ingram isn’t interested in talking about fractures in the union: “Politicians would love to see us fight each other,” he said.

But he’s done well in the past with winning over opponents.

In 2001, Ingram made a rough first impression with then-state Rep. Frederica Wilson, who was so incensed with his band’s dancing at a Orlando competition that witnesses said she ran onto the field and berated Ingram.

Wilson was unavailable for an interview, but her staff confirmed that the two are now friends.

Gabriel said teachers expect big things from Ingram, based on his past.

“People didn’t expect him to make it — a kid from the projects; he stuttered; he had this great adversity,” she said. “He wasn’t supposed to be where he is today, and he made it. That’s the story.”