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The Los Angeles Unified School District has a new superintendent

A MARTINEZ, HOST:

This COVID pandemic era has put a particular burden on school administrators as districts struggle to get students back to class but also keep everyone safe. One person who's been tackling those challenges is former Miami-Dade Public Schools chief Alberto Carvalho. Last December, as many people have during this period, Carvalho switched jobs to become superintendent of the Los Angeles Unified School District, the second-largest public school system in the nation. I spoke with Carvalho and asked him about the challenges ahead and about the pressures not just on students but teachers, too, as they navigate the ongoing pandemic.

ALBERTO CARVALHO: We spent a lot of time obviously concerning ourselves with the well-being of students, how they navigated the pandemic, the academic loss that they experienced and the mental anguish as a result of social isolation that they felt. And sometimes we don't recognize sufficiently the challenges that teachers face during the same time. And I can tell you, after speaking with many teachers and actually serving teachers in a very deliberate way, we found out that teachers suffered that same type of stress and trauma. It was difficult for teachers to establish necessary connection, not only intellectual connection with the students they taught but the emotional connection that usually face-to-face instruction allows. With that said, I'm actually quite inspired by the resilient nature of both teachers and students in Los Angeles and Miami and across the country. They did the very best during very, very difficult conditions, and in the process, they improved their skill set.

MARTINEZ: In Florida, I know that you defied Governor DeSantis' ban on mask mandates. You're now moving to California, where even some politically progressive parents feel that the state's COVID restrictions for schools could be too strict. If, as you say, Superintendent, that the pandemic is here to stay, what's your message to LA parents about how their kids are going to deal with COVID while at school?

CARVALHO: You know, I've been someone who has been guided by the expert advice of public health and medical entities in Miami. I will take that perspective over to Los Angeles. No doubt, the political fight is not going to be like the one I dealt with in in Miami where my job, my pay was threatened over decisions that were in line with the expert advice of medical entities. I don't think that's going to be the challenge in Los Angeles. At the same time, I have to recognize that people are seeking normalcy. People are seeking routine. I think there's an appropriate way to establish a balance that resumes the routine that kids need, the normalcy they desire without abandoning scientific principles that protect our schools and protect our communities.

MARTINEZ: I saw that you recently asked the state of Florida to remove accountability measures for the year's annual school assessment levels. If it happens, it would make back-to-back years where test scores would be waived. Your reasoning is that the pandemic has resulted in learning loss, loss of instruction days. How much longer, though, Superintendent, can schools generally downplay standardized testing?

CARVALHO: Well, I'm one who believes in accountability but reasonable accountability - fewer tests, more opportunity to teach. But we still need some degree of accountability. We need to know where students are academically and sort of the gaps that have emerged. What I'm asking for is not an absolute removal or cessation of testing. What I'm asking for is let's not use the test results in a punitive way that will influence the evaluation of teachers or the designation of school grades. Why? Because conditions across the state of Florida were not homogeneous. So the impact of COVID continues to have a disproportionate level of consequence on communities based on positivity levels across the state that vary wildly. What I'm asking for is that the punitive actions that would come with accountability be suspended until such time as we have a uniform, level playing field across the entire state.

MARTINEZ: I know that you've always been pro upgrading tech in schools, but a lot of times, that's easier said than done. LAUSD had a plan to distribute iPads that did not go well. And a couple of summers ago, I know that you had to apologize for a deal with an online school provider that had a lot of tech issues. The pandemic, though, has pushed everyone and every school district to at least accept that learning from home could sometimes be a needed alternative. So how can that be done effectively?

CARVALHO: I'm proud of the fact that school systems stepped up, faced challenges in some aspects. The private sector was not ready to really pivot as quickly as teachers pivoted to this new environment. So there were failures across the country. There were challenges. But I think today we are in a far better position as far as what technology can bring to schools. And what that means is that teaching and learning now because of - technologies can take place 24/7, anytime, anywhere. With that said, we need to recognize that the best type of instruction, the best type of education, happens in a face-to-face environment with a professionally trained teacher who cares, who has the right level of skill and will to teach the child. You know, you cannot teach the mind whose heart you have not touched. Sometimes it is hard to touch the heart from a distance.

MARTINEZ: I know that you took over in Miami in 2008, and I think most would generally agree that you had a successful run at Miami-Dade. I was an LAUSD student once. I was a teacher's assistant in the district. I have aunts and uncles who are teachers here, so I know firsthand how tough of a job the superintendent is in LA. It's a bruising job. Since 2008, since you took over Miami, there have been six different LAUSD superintendents. So why do you want to do this job in Los Angeles?

CARVALHO: I know what works. I also know that the potential of LA, much like Miami - you know, the journey is not finished here - can be realized with equal parts skill and will and the belief that in fact, this work can be done. LA is a greater level opportunity. I think over the past 14 years, I've taken Miami as far as I can take it within the political environment, particularly over the past two years that we had to navigate. I now see literally Los Angeles as this new western opportunity that, quite frankly, will prove to the nation that a mega system the size of Los Angeles can in fact aggressively move towards student performance at levels that have never been realized by, quite frankly, reunifying the LA community through the power of education.

MARTINEZ: That's incoming Los Angeles Unified School District Superintendent Alberto Carvalho. Thank you very much.

CARVALHO: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF SAM PREKOP'S "A CLOUD TO THE BACK") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.