Education

From $1 principal to Miami-Dade school board chair

emichot@miamiherald.com

When it came time for Larry Feldman to retire from the Miami-Dade school district after 35 years, the popular principal wasn’t ready to say goodbye to his students. So he offered to stay on at Devon Aire K-8 Center for just one dollar in 2008 at a time when the district was strapped for cash.

“I wanted to graduate with the kids who had started five years earlier” — the year he had become their principal. “We had made a lot of changes to the school and we all bonded in a unique way.”

But the superintendent at the time rejected his offer, citing budget concerns. There was was no way, the logic went, that the district could hire somebody else at $1 if Feldman wound up leaving. So Feldman decided to run for the school board instead.

Eight years later, under a new superintendent, Alberto Carvalho, the district has run up a period of academic achievements and budget improvements that has lead to national recognition. And Feldman has traversed the county, and sometimes the state and country, expanding his advocacy from one Miami-Dade school to all of them. His schedule is often grueling, jam-packed with school events and meetings from early in the morning until late at night. More than a few district employees have woken up the next morning to see an email from Feldman that he sent well after midnight.

In late November, Feldman was elected chair of the school board — the first time in six years that the board overseeing the country’s fourth-largest school district has had a new leader. The school board was previously led by Perla Tabares Hantman.

I realized that each one of us has a destiny and an opportunity to fulfill it.

Miami-Dade School Board Chair Larry Feldman

Feldman’s second meeting as chair took place Wednesday and stretched long into the evening, ending around 9 p.m. More than an hour of the meeting was spent discussing a proposal by new board member Steve Gallon to closely monitor the district’s most vulnerable schools, particularly those that have received D and F grades. In what was at times a tense exchange, at least a dozen people got up to share their frustrations that some schools have continued to struggle year after year. Feldman let speakers continue beyond the allotted time and responded to each with a thank you and a summary of the specific points they had raised.

“I thought it went well,” he said of the meeting. “People should feel comfortable to share the good, the bad and the corrections.”

It’s a conviction that stems in part from Feldman’s own experience as a student at the University of Florida in the early 1970s, where he was the only man in his teaching program. As he was finishing up his bachelor’s degree, Feldman learned that he was not going to be able to enter a master’s program because he had not taken two courses as a freshman that he didn’t know he needed. After pacing back and forth for hours, Feldman decided to knock on the university president’s door around 10:30 at night.

The president opened the door in his bathrobe and slippers to find a nervous college student standing outside. “I’m not a radical,” Feldman told him, referring to the Vietnam era protesters. “I’m just a guy who the university has ruined his life.”

To his surprise, the president invited Feldman inside to hear his grievances. The next day, he called a staff meeting and they found a solution to the problem, which Feldman later learned he was not the only student to have experienced — just the only one audacious enough to knock on the president’s door to complain about it.

Feldman completed his master’s degree in special education and went on to teach at several Miami-Dade elementary schools before rising in the ranks, becoming an assistant principal, principal and later director for the district’s southern region. It’s an area that is home to a large population of migrant farm workers and recent immigrants, where many students struggle to overcome both poverty and language barriers.

As a principal at Palmetto Elementary School, Feldman created an innovative partnership with a language instruction company to broaden the school’s Spanish program and brought in animal and art therapy. He also rearranged the students’ schedules so that students from the same class went to extracurricular classes at different times, leaving only a small group with the teacher for critical math and reading instruction.

The innovations at Palmetto Elementary were heralded in The New York Times in the late 1980s as examples of experiments in education at the school level that were helping large urban districts. But Feldman’s devotion to his students meant he had less time to spend at home with his family. There were days when Feldman’s wife would drive their two daughters down to Palmetto Elementary so they could share dinner in Feldman’s office. The family would eat on Feldman’s desk, talk about their day, and then his wife and children would go home and Feldman would continue working.

“It catches up with me sometimes,” said Feldman of his 24/7 schedule. But, he added, education is his calling in life. “I realized that each one of us has a destiny and an opportunity to fulfill it,” he said.

Greg Zawyer worked as a principal while Feldman was overseeing the district’s southern region in the 1990s and early 2000s. As a boss, Zawyer said Feldman offered “a lot of suggestions and a lot of support.”

“He comes up with the greatest ideas, he brainstorms a lot,” he said, adding that Feldman was always open to new proposals and programs proposed by his staff.

This willingness to listen extends to the student leaders in Feldman’s district, who he meets with on a monthly basis to get input about issues the school board is discussing. “They tell me how to vote,” he said. “They give me a lot of great ideas.”

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