Credit: Irfan Khan / Los Angeles Times/POLARIS
Los Angeles Unified Superintendent Alberto M. Carvalho shares his artwork with students during a visit to Elysian Heights Elementary Arts Magnet in Los Angeles.

New Los Angeles schools Superintendent Alberto Carvalho has packed in a lot during his first three weeks on the job — overseeing changes to the district’s mask mandates and debuting an extensive 100-day plan outlining his priorities for the district.

Carvalho, who comes to Los Angeles Unified after serving nearly 14 years as the superintendent of Miami-Dade County Public Schools, is faced with a number of challenges made worse by the pandemic.

EdSource sat down with Carvalho, following the release of his 100-day plan, to discuss his goals and next steps to address the mounting pressures, including declining enrollment and Covid-19. The conversation has been edited for brevity and clarity.

In your 100-day plan, you talked about a commitment to collective bargaining through an equity lens. What does that mean?

It’s a complex and full bag, right? One of the elements is actually to more closely align resources in a differentiated way, in a disproportionate way, with the highest level needs students in the school system. There are ways to negotiate incentives, not through mandated directives, but incentives to bring the most effective, experienced teachers. We know for a fact that, often, open instructional positions are first felt in the highest-need schools, where they really should not exist. These are the students that absolutely need a committed, dedicated teacher 100% of the time. Well, there’s no guarantee that, right now, that is happening.

I’m one who believes that we should start with what’s in the best interest of students. What shall we tackle first? What are the critical elements around which we can carve out common ground and go from there? Unfortunately, across the country, sometimes negotiations between collective bargaining entities and management begin only in terms of a financial position that can be sustained by management and a set of demands that are listed by the labor unions, and students are lost in the shuffle. How about what’s in the best interest of kids? I want to start there and bring both parties together. That’s what I mean by really using the lens of equity and student need to orient and advantage the negotiation process.

Los Angeles Unified saw a big drop in enrollment this past year because of the pandemic. How do you plan to handle uncertainty over enrollment? Will there be layoffs? How will that affect school closures?

No. 1, there has been a significant population shift, some moving out of the greater L.A. Unified span of control because of the second reason. The second reason is absolutely economic: unaffordability to live in Los Angeles. The pandemic accelerated other shifts for a whole host of reasons. You have parents that maintain homes in two different cities. And you have the very disturbing phenomenon, which is being seen across America, with disproportionate effect and impact on urban areas, which is the actual disappearing act of students — students that have absolutely fallen through the cracks.

I don’t think we’re there yet where we need to consolidate schools, at this point, to deal with this issue. There are other strategies that we can employ first. Secondly, there is no current or imminent threat to employment to our workforce as a result of this FTE [full-time equivalency] loss. There is a terrific state budget. Finally, we have at least two years of financial stability enabled by federal funding, as well as the American Recovery Act. Now it’s on us.

Two years from now, we need to consider the capacity of schools, current enrollment and make decisions in the way we staff schools. Start right now with a clear understanding about the rate and trends specific to separation, retirement and the fact that people leave the profession. We’ll use that trend data and adjust the backfill for those positions so that we are not employing more than what we can sustain two years down the road when these funds sunset. I have experience in this: I was superintendent in Miami at the beginning of the Great Recession, where we lost $2 billion worth of funding. Never once did we put a teacher out of a job; we didn’t cut arts and music programs.

As the district enters another school year amid the pandemic, what should we expect the fall to look like?

I’m very cautious about predicting what tomorrow will bring, particularly when we’re talking about the fall because we’ve been embarrassed before. We thought that we had reached the promised land as far as Covid was concerned, and then we had the delta variant, and then we had omicron. We ought to maintain nimbleness – the ability of our district to pivot quickly. What are the best indicators, the best thresholds and the best data for us to follow?

I believe that very soon, we will be able to make decisions that are medically endorsed regarding the frequency and cadence of testing, particularly for secondary students. A huge percentage of them are vaccinated and all the workforce that teaches them and supports them is vaccinated. So, I think we can sort of throttle down some of those protocols and reinvest those dollars, which are significant, into the schoolhouse and into support systems for academic acceleration. If the conditions continue to improve, I think we’re going to be in a position — going into the summer — where the science advice and the health indicators are such that we may, in fact, relax those protocols.

How will the district use the funding directed toward community schools?

I believe in the concept of community schools. But I also hope to leverage other entities that want a seat at the table to coordinate and collaborate and strategize in a more coherent way across the entire district.

The only way to provide the guarantee is by understanding who’s ready, willing and available to actually step up and join. Then, figure out the strategy on how best to deploy these support systems like community schools into areas that need it the most rather than layering resource on top of resource in areas where the need is not really there. That’s the hard work.

Over the next two years, funding is not going to be the limitation. The limitation is not going to be a financial one. The limitation is not going to be one of skill set. The biggest challenge is going to be the will to actually get it done.

In your 100-day plan, when you talk about school choice, what are you considering?

What kinds of programs are there? What’s the enrollment? How many kids are enrolled in advanced placement, in dual enrollment, in international baccalaureate or Cambridge? How many fine and performing arts magnets are there? How many examples of single-gender schools or cybersecurity programs actually move students? That’s the revolution, the explosion of offerings I’m seeking. I’m less concerned about the dynamic of dialogue that usually separates people into two camps: charter versus non-charter. I’m more interested in programmatic offerings that benefit kids — period.

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  1. Howie L. 7 months ago7 months ago

    Following up on Jim's comment, all superintendents ultimately become politicians. After they've been in the job for a while – or immediately if they rose through the ranks – they are expert at finding the least objectionable course of action to any issue. In interviews like this, that translates to evasiveness. Superintendent Carvalho started out in administration doing public relations for his school district. He knows exactly what to say. The … Read More

    Following up on Jim’s comment, all superintendents ultimately become politicians. After they’ve been in the job for a while – or immediately if they rose through the ranks – they are expert at finding the least objectionable course of action to any issue. In interviews like this, that translates to evasiveness.

    Superintendent Carvalho started out in administration doing public relations for his school district. He knows exactly what to say. The ironic thing is that this is what we want our administrators and superintendents to be. We want dignified, confident, steady hands on the till. Getting a superintendent to support the sort of fundamental experimentation we need at this point – like getting to the bottom of why so many kids did not attend, as Jim apparently asked a Board member – goes against everything they have learned about staying out of trouble.

    That, in itself, may “offend” some people like Jim and I, but we are a small minority. Most people just look for key words in a response, and if they’re there, give it a thumbs up. After x years of no change they do get tired and then demand we bring in someone new, and it starts all over again.

  2. Jim 7 months ago7 months ago

    I had kids at an LAUSD school when Steve Zimmer came in to address the parent group. He was enthused by the "tremendous community support" of the school. I pointed out that according to the LAUSD demographers 92% of the kids in the catchment did not attend the school. Zimmer was not interested in discussion of why the vast majority of kids did not attend and what could be done to make the school more … Read More

    I had kids at an LAUSD school when Steve Zimmer came in to address the parent group. He was enthused by the “tremendous community support” of the school. I pointed out that according to the LAUSD demographers 92% of the kids in the catchment did not attend the school. Zimmer was not interested in discussion of why the vast majority of kids did not attend and what could be done to make the school more attractive. “I’m more interested in programmatic offerings that benefit kids” is just more of the same.