When Alberto Carvalho became superintendent of Los Angeles Unified last Feb. 14, he promised to close widening academic achievement gaps among students, build community relationships and address enrollment woes.
Now a year in, the leader of the nation’s second-largest public school district has launched a wide range of initiatives that his supporters say show a welcomed focus on student needs in the wake of the pandemic’s learning losses. It is too early to prove success — and some, like the two extra days of optional learning during the recent winter break, were disappointing. But others show promise such as steps the district has taken steps to prevent fentanyl overdoses and reduce absenteeism.
Meanwhile, some parents and local organizations say they wish the superintendent would engage them more as the district moves forward with these new efforts.
Carvalho came to LAUSD a year ago after nearly 14 years as superintendent at Miami-Dade County Public Schools, where he was largely credited with improving student achievement. With unanimous support from the school board, he secured a four-year contract with the Los Angeles district for $440,000 a year. He now oversees a sprawling district of just over 422,000 students that spans more than 780 schools across Los Angeles County.
At a recent news conference, Carvalho said he sees his role as pushing for improvement and acknowledged the challenges ahead. “One of the things I love about Los Angeles is even when you do right, there is pressure to do better,” Carvalho said. “What improves a school system is pressure: positive pressure, demanding pressure.”
He came to Los Angeles at a difficult moment, following former Superintendent Austin Beutner and interim Superintendent Megan Reilly, whose tenures were defined by a teachers’ strike and the Covid-19 switch to online learning. Arriving at the end of the district’s first year back to in-person instruction, Carvalho inherited a district still reeling from the effects of the pandemic and high levels of enrollment decline, close to a 6% drop in 2021.
Currently, the district is navigating tense labor negotiations and increased pressure from some community and student advocates to fully divest funds from the school district’s police department and reinvest them in academic and socio-emotional support for students, particularly Black students. The push comes after the school board voted to cut the police budget by more than a third in 2020 and removed police officers from school campuses.
Carvalho has set ambitious goals in a strategic plan intended to define his next four years at LAUSD. The plan aims to improve students’ academic performance, wellness and engagement as well as plans to bolster district operations and invest in staff. The district also identified 100 schools deemed the most fragile based on low test scores and high socioeconomic need, which have received the most targeted support.
Carvalho has launched new academic programs and promoted efforts to bring students back into the classroom. He’s redeployed staff to the classroom to address the teacher shortage and is building a student recruitment campaign with hospitals to get families thinking about LAUSD from the moment their child is born. He’s dealt with a cybersecurity attack that halted some daily operations and brought the overdose reversal drug naloxone into schools to combat fentanyl.
L.A. County Superintendent of Schools Debra Duardo said Carvalho has adapted quickly to Los Angeles and its very different systems and politics than Florida’s. “He’s super open to it, very passionate about being here in L.A. and supporting the population of students that we serve. He’s expressed a real understanding and interest in serving our most vulnerable students,” she said.
The L.A. County Office of Education is currently working with LAUSD as it unrolls its new telehealth program to give students free access to mental health support.
While the new proposals are exciting to see, USC Rossier School of Education Dean Pedro Noguera said it’s too early to understand their effectiveness.
“Everything sounds good on paper, but it’s hard to say how it’s going to play out,” said Noguera, who has known Carvalho since he was in Miami. “Implementation is the key here. He’s a very hands-on kind of guy, and I think that’ll help him, but if you make a system to be heavy-handed everywhere, you’ve got to rely on others to implement.”
But some feel he’s making those decisions without seeking enough input.
“He has taken on an approach of moving ahead on his own and has really not engaged community groups that have been at the forefront of progress and change at the school district,” InnerCity Struggle interim Executive Director Henry Perez said.
That’s a sentiment echoed by Jenna Schwartz, a founder of the Parents Supporting Teachers Facebook group, which often aligns with the teachers union.
“I definitely think that there are some areas where I’m concerned that the superintendent has sort of focused a little bit too much on the change he wants to make versus stepping back and listening to the teachers and the parents and the administrators who have been here to sort of say, here’s what we need,” Schwartz said. “He sort of said, ‘Here’s what I think you need.’”
Putting Carvalho at the helm has led to a more unified school board, according to board President Jackie Goldberg. That’s particularly been the case because of the way he involved board members in producing the strategic plan, she said. LAUSD had not followed such a detailed plan in the past.
When Carvalho steps out of the district’s SUV and onto a school campus, he greets the administrators, making a point to ask them what sort of support the school may need. Typically dressed in a dark suit, he’ll chat with teachers, staff and students to ask them what they’re working on and step into an occasional lesson. He’ll relate them to his own hardships growing up in Portugal and later coming to the United States as a teen. He’s no stranger to social media either, which he uses to celebrate district achievements and tout his own achievements.
Carvalho has largely focused on getting students back in the classroom and back on track academically following the pandemic. Chronic absenteeism is down 10% from last year. Test scores showed LAUSD performed better academically than many other districts across California, but nonetheless demonstrated widespread drops in the percentage of students meeting state standards across the district.
LAUSD continues to grapple with continuing enrollment decline exacerbated by the pandemic. The district once enrolled 737,000 students, but now that’s down to just above 422,000. It’s looking toward the expansion of transitional kindergarten to all 4-year-olds by 2024 to balance out the loss. Enrollment dropped this year by nearly 2%, a lower rate than previous years; however, it also accounts for growth from transitional kindergarten.
To the surprise of many, however, the district also saw a big increase in eighth grade reading on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, which drew both praise and skepticism. The 2022 assessment, like most other years, included scores from affiliated charters. However, the 2019 test did not, which may contribute to the large score increase.
Carvalho has launched several large-scale efforts to catch students up, including a push for families to enroll their children in summer school and participate in tutoring. His planned optional additional days of learning backfired, however, after strong opposition from UTLA caused the days to move to school breaks rather than the school year. Just over 36,000 students participated in the first two days over winter break, a low turnout equivalent to less than 9% of the student population.
Carvalho has since brushed the low numbers off, saying those who deemed the days a waste of money didn’t understand the need.
“Did any district ever bring 40,000 students to school during winter break?” he said at a news conference. “In Miami, we would celebrate if we had 5,000 students show up for acceleration days.”
He’s also put a heavy focus on tutoring, but access varies broadly across the district. That has frustrated many families looking for more consistent support.
“They’ve tried a number of things. They admitted that the emphasis on tutoring did not seem to be delivering the kind of results they were hoping for,” Noguera said. “I like the fact that they’re willing to at least change course if something doesn’t seem to be working because that’s wise, but I don’t know if they’ve yet found the formula that’s going to work for their schools.”
Moving forward, Evelyn Aleman, who runs Our Voice/Nuestra Voz as a way to connect Latino parents across the district, hopes to see more efforts from Carvalho to address the concerns of the Latino population, the largest demographic in the district. Families are asking for him to hear their thoughts on Covid-19 safety, technological barriers, mental health and support for police presence on campus.
“He has fallen short on delivery for our community. They expressed to me that what they feel is that he clearly is someone who likes to be seen and likes to be seen with leadership, and he likes to be on social media,” she said of Our Voice/Nuestra Voz parents. “But this rubs our working families the wrong way because they feel that he is largely inaccessible to them.”
Tensions are high between Carvalho and the district’s labor unions, which wield more power than those in Miami. Negotiations continue with both the teachers union and SEIU Local 99, which represents custodians, special education assistants and other essential employees. Local 99 voted to authorize a strike should negotiations continue to stall.
“Superintendent Carvalho has expressed a commitment to meeting the needs of the whole child and has publicly recognized that all school staff are essential to ensuring students and families thrive,” SEIU Local 99 Executive Director Max Arias said in a statement to EdSource. “As he moves into his second year at LAUSD, we look to him to put his words and vision into action.”
Board member Nick Melvoin sees an opportunity for Carvalho’s relationship with the unions to improve as has been the case for superintendents in the past.
“I think Austin [Beutner] did not start off on a great foot with some of our unions, but his work during the pandemic earned a lot of trust and respect,” he said.“Carvalho came in having worked with labor organizations in Miami and is open to working with everyone.”
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