Black Alumni Say Superintendent Alberto Carvalho Ignores Their Schools
The confetti wafted onto his impossibly square shoulders. The Nashville audience stood and roared. Then a medal on a royal-blue ribbon was draped around Miami-Dade schools superintendent Alberto Carvalho's neck. Last month, after more than five years of agonizingly hard work, the self-proclaimed son of "pretty dramatic poverty" who grew up in a one-bedroom apartment with no electricity or running water was named the nation's school superintendent of the year.
"If we can crack the code to student achievement in Miami, [which is] so poor, so diverse," said Carvalho, still wearing the medal beneath his tailored sport coat after the event, "it is a solution for the rest of the nation."
Problem is, his "solution" is under attack. Parents and alumni representing predominantly African-American schools in the urban core claim Carvalho has betrayed them and ignored their interests. A letter sent last week by angry, frustrated members of Inner City Alumni for Responsible Education (ICARE), an umbrella group representing alumni associations from seven of Miami-Dade County's largest inner-city high schools, accuses Carvalho of being "a slick operator" and showing "neglect and apathy" for black schools while caving to concerns from other ethnic groups.
"All we get from the superintendent is broken promise after broken promise," says Larry Williams, president of Miami Northwestern High's alumni association and a 1974 grad. "Our schools have the worst technology, the buildings are outdated, and he just pushes us to the back burner and then lies about it."
The detailed, six-page letter of protest comes at an inopportune time for Carvalho. This past weekend, he visited Northwestern for a celebration of the school's academic achievements. According to the Miami Herald, he's rumored to be pondering "leaving the district for a job with a higher profile." And he is likely to meet soon with President Obama to celebrate his superintendent-of-the-year honor.
After I sent the alumni letter to Carvalho's office last week, his chief of staff, Milagros Fornell, responded with an even more exhaustive missive that described the school department's efforts to distribute money fairly, increase hiring of African-Americans, and work with businesses in the community. "Over the past 5.5 years, we believe we have come together as a community," she wrote, following with a favorite Carvalho-ism. "No longer an uneasy collection of factions, we are one Miami."
Carvalho, a handsome, charismatic man who speaks with a slight accent from his childhood in Portugal, took the helm at Miami-Dade County Public Schools, the nation's fourth-largest district, in July 2008. He replaced Rudy Crew, a baby-faced former head of New York City public schools -- whom the Miami-Dade school board fired.
Among Carvalho's first actions was a public meeting with the black community at the cavernous Caleb Center. Attendees were skeptical. After all, Crew, who is African-American, was fired from the job soon after becoming Florida's first national superintendent of the year. (Carvalho is, coincidentally, the second.) Members of the community feared they would be forgotten.
But according to William "DC" Clark, president of Miami Central's alumni association and author of the protest letter, Carvalho made a "stirring speech" and then walked into a circle of men. "If you walk with me, if you get involved," the superintendent said, "I promise you we can make the necessary changes in this community [to] make us proud."
So Clark and the other leaders of the alumni associations -- Edison, Booker T. Washington, Norland, Jackson, Northwestern, and Carol City -- began holding meetings with Carvalho in his downtown Miami office. They asked for more hiring of black administrators. And they demanded that more federal money meant for poor students be directed toward the institutions the leaders represented. Clark says they met ten times. Others say the number of meetings was more like two dozen.
"I was one of his biggest proponents, and I consider him a friend," says Clark, a retired firefighter whose two daughters and grandson also attended Central. "But he has betrayed the community. He's playing a shell game with our kids' lives."