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Miami-Dade schools chief Carvalho announces priorities

Miami Dade Superintendent of Schools Alberto Carvalho kicked off the 2012-2013 school year Friday morning by stressing “perseverance” during difficult times.

He knows it won’t be easy — with funding restraints and higher standards — but he’s set some lofty goals for the upcoming school year, which starts Aug. 20.

“The road has not been easy,” Carvalho said to the hundreds of educators and community members who filled the theater at the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts in downtown Miami Friday. “We don’t quit. We never quit. We know there will be challenges ahead, but you and I are ready to deal with it.”

Among Carvalho’s ideas:

•  implement an academic transformation, giving F-rated schools additional support;

•  launch an initiative to raise capital by renting facilities, consulting for other districts and advertising;

• bridge the digital divide by adding technology throughout the district;

•  encourage voters to invest in capital improvements for older schools; and

•  increase the job responsibilities of select principals to give them more control over their own schools.

Through speeches, videos, stories of athletes and former students, and performances by talented students and Miami-Dade graduates, many left Friday inspired for the new school year.

“I believe he is going to make it happen,” Eddy Barea, chairman of the district’s allocation committee, said about Carvalho. “I think he has motivated everyone.”

The annual opening of schools address is the district’s way of welcoming back more than 350,000 students and 23,000 employees.

“We are here to celebrate the power of education, the power of community, the power of determination, the power of courage,” Carvalho said to the packed theater. “We are here to celebrate children, community, teaching and leadership.”

Sprinkled throughout the program were shining examples of those very children. Jennifer Avery, a student at Dr. Michael M. Krop Senior High School, sang the national anthem. Miami Senior High School Army JROTC presented the colors and Norland Middle School student Arvana Pierre played a violin piece.

But it was Kelly Kessel, a recent New World School of the Arts graduate, singing Defying Gravity from the play “Wicked” that hit home for Carvalho.

It’s time to try, Defying gravity, I think I’ll try, Defying gravity, she sang.

Carvalho said the lyrics worked perfectly for a district that is “defying gravity” and succeeding despite challenges.

“You are the people who don’t allow things to fall,” he said. “Actually the things in your hands fall up. You breach the laws of physics everyday.”

Earlier this summer, the School Board gave initial approval to a $2.7 billion budget and a slightly lower tax rate for 2012-13. The plan includes a $14.8 million reorganization of the district, which will condense regional offices, eliminate some departments and cut more than 100 positions.

Despite having to close a $60 million gap, the budget preserves teacher jobs and protects electives for students.

On Friday, Carvalho said his five goals are reachable with buy-in from administrators, teachers and parents.

First, he said the goal is to help boost grades at all schools by giving extra support to eliminate F-rated schools from the district.

“They raised the standards, but I know you,” he said. “Come Aug. 20 you will hit the ground running. You will inspire. You will lead.”

Carvalho also said the district is working to bridge the digital divide by increasing the technology in schools across the district through money raised and federal dollars.

“Access to technology is usually dictated by the ZIP code,” he said. “We can no longer wait another day.”

Using the district’s resources, including knowledge and facilities, to make added revenue is also a priority this year. Carvalho also said he is stressing more autonomy for principals, giving a select group more leeway to run their school.

But perhaps his biggest priority this year is to get everyone onboard with his plan to ask voters to approve a $1.2 billion general obligation bond to help improve Miami-Dade schools.

“Our kids deserve it, our teachers deserve it, you deserve it,” he said.

More than half of the district’s schools are more than 40 years old, a situation which is “unacceptable,’’ Carvalho said.

“I need your help,” he said. “I need you to get out there and sell this.”

Sharon Watson, the president of Miami-Dade County Council of PTAs/PTSAs said the council is on board with the $1.2 billion initiative.

“We don’t have a choice,” she said.

Watson, like many others, said Friday’s address was the perfect way to kick-off a new school year.

“It’s like what they say at the races,” she said. “And they’re off.”