LAUSD’s newest Superintendent is now one year into his tenure steering America’s second-largest school district out of the pandemic and into the next chapter of its history.
He came to Los Angeles after nearly 14 years as superintendent at Miami-Dade County Public Schools and now oversees more than 422,000 students at about 780 schools.
Upon arrival, he immediately busied himself launching a litany of new initiatives – Acceleration Days, iAttend Days, the Cultural Arts Passport, Everyone Mentors LA, Born to Learn, Narcan on all campuses, expanded tutoring services, evening buses and more.
These programs sought to address a range of pressing issues including chronic absenteeism, pandemic learning loss, declining enrollment and safety on campus and were all announced with charismatic speeches, bold promises and snappy photo ops.
But have they generated the results they have promised? Some stakeholders say yes, some say no, and others say it’s too soon to tell.
Superintendent Carvalho, for his part, said he’s proud of his early results, touting an 10% decrease in chronic absenteeism this academic year, a 12% increase in students using tutoring services, hiring more than 2,000 teachers and stabilization in the district’s student enrollment for the first time in more than a decade.
“I think it’s a compelling set of accomplishments for a short period of time, under a great deal of duress and under a great deal of stress considering the post-pandemic conditions,” he said in a recent interview.
School board members, for now, are largely reserving their judgment.
“The superintendent has been working hard this first year, and there is much to be done,” said Board Member Rocio Rivas.
“Over the past year, he has laid out a road map for success, with a clear, ambitious strategic plan, pandemic recovery efforts, innovative new programs, and a reorganization that better aligns district leadership with the focus areas we’re prioritizing,” said LAUSD Board Member Nick Melvoin. “I’m hopeful that he can keep making progress for our school communities.”
Parent and student groups have been quicker to form opinions.
Evelyn Aleman, who runs Latino parent group Our Voice/Nuestra Voz, praised the energy and experience that Carvalho brings to the position, but said she wishes he paid more attention to the concerns of Latino parents, who make up 74% of the district’s population. Our Voice parents in particular are concerned with campus safety following the school board’s decision in 2020 to slash the school police budget by 35%.
“He has not come through on his promises. He says that schools are safe for children, but this is not true,” said Our Voice parent Pedro Tot.
On the other hand, members of Students’ Deserve, a group that supports getting rid of the school police, say Carvalho hasn’t done enough to address their concerns.
“He has committed to one of our demands (not increasing the school police budget) – but we haven’t seen him do anything to increase mental health supports, expand the Black Student Achievement Plan or commit to end the criminalizing of Black students by cutting the budget of school police,” said Amaris Carter, leader with Students Deserve and in 11th grade at Downtown Business Magnets High School.
This tension represents the tightrope Carvalho must navigate on many issues.
“I think being LAUSD superintendent is a much harder political job than being mayor of Los Angeles, because you serve seven different masters (board members), you’ve got to balance a whole bunch of crazy special interest politics on the head of a pen, all while, in theory, keeping your eye on the ball in terms of advocating for children,” said Ben Austin, founder of national non-profit Education Civil Rights Now.
In Austin’s estimation, Carvalho has done a solid job balancing these interests out of the gate while also staying focused on students’ needs.
“He seems like the kind of leader who is unafraid to say the quiet part out loud and and unafraid to challenge the entrenched status quo on behalf of children who can’t advocate for themselves,” he said.
In particular, Carvalho has not shied away from being brutally honest about the reality of student learning loss; standardized test scores revealed that students lost approximately five years of academic gains during distance learning. Nor has Carvalho ignored the fact that 46% of students were chronically absent – meaning they missed at least 9% of the academic year – during the 2021-2022 school year.
He helped tackle the absenteeism with robust community outreach and his ‘iAttend’ days, where he alongside district staff went door-to-door looking for absent students. Over 9,000 of these visits were conducted over the past year, which Carvalho partially credits for the 10% decline in chronic absenteeism this academic year.
Carvalho’s cornerstone strategy to address learning loss – two bonus schools days a semester known as Acceleration Days – ultimately received a somewhat lackluster attendance of just under 40,000 students in their first iteration on Dec. 19 and 20.
Carvalho attributed this, in part, to the fact that he had to move the planned days from the middle of the semester to the end of the semester in a compromise agreement with the teachers union, United Teachers Los Angeles. UTLA alleged that the days were added to the calendar without adequate labor negotiations.
“The right students came to school, meaning the ones who needed it most,” said Carvalho, who still considered the days a success. “80% of the students who made up that 40,000 were the most academically fragile students.”
Contract negotiations with UTLA will be the next big battlefield for Carvalho. Union leaders have rejected the district’s pay proposals thus far and demanded they bring more to the table.
His predecessor Austin Beutner contended with a six-day teacher strike.
Carvalho will also have to negotiate an agreement with SEIU Local 99, the union representing around 35,000 non-teaching staff including bus drivers, custodians and special education assistants. SEIU has also turn their noses up at the district’s proposals and recently voted to authorize a strike in the case that negotiations continue to stall.
“I am not satisfied with the pace of negotiations,” said Carvalho. “We have more resources to put at the table. I’m anxious for the opportunities to negotiate more aggressively.”
His ability to settle these complex negotiations and avert two potentially disruptive highly will serve as a litmus test for his ability to command control of the district going forward, Austin said.
“His predecessor very quickly caved to all of the utilities demands and seemed to make very little effort to advocate for teacher quality in contract negotiations,” he said. “How Carvalho handles the UTLA contract negotiations and the lines that he draws in the sand are going to say a lot about about his values and his priorities as a leader of LA schools.”