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  • Writer's picture@ Cynthia Adina Kirkwood

L.A. Schools Win Oscar on Watch of Portuguese Immigrant Alberto Carvalho

“My father had no education, but he was very intelligent, and he told me: ‘Alberto, no matter where you are, you are there.’ At the time, I didn’t understand, but now I understand. I could educate myself, have money, influence, power, dress differently but, in essence, we are all the same. The soul and the intellect have no labels. It is very important to understand this, especially when you are on the ladder of political, economic and professional power,” Alberto M. Carvalho, Superintendent of the Los Angeles Unified School District, told Diário de Notícias.


Since 1959, Los Angeles has been one of the few United States cities to offer and fix musical instruments for its students in public schools at no cost.


The Last Repair Shop, winner of the 2024 Academy Award for Best Documentary Short Film, takes a peek into the souls of the craftspeople who keep the 80,000 percussion, woodwind, string, brass and keyboard instruments in good repair as well as into the lives of the students who flourish through music.


Alberto M. Carvalho, Superintendent of the Los Angeles Unified School District, learned the value of the fine arts as a child. A native of Bairro Alto in Lisbon, his mother was a seamstress and his father a typesetter. Born around 1965, he was one of six children, reported Diário de Notícias (March 4, 2018). He described growing up in “pretty dramatic poverty”, living “in a one-room apartment with no running water and no electricity,” reported the Miami Herald (February 13, 2014).


“I remember being poor, but feeling absolutely rich. I felt rich because every time I left my little apartment I was greeted by absolute beauty. The architecture; the paintings in museums I could go to for free; the fountains; poetry; the music that sounded in the old neighborhoods of Lisbon, inspired me every day. Was I poor? I didn’t feel poor because everything around me made me feel rich,” he told Diário de Notícias.


Carvalho is a force who has been recognized as an administrator with empathy, integrity and just plain grit. Portugal honored the educator with the Order of Merit in 2012; the American Association of School Administrators named him National Superintendent of the Year in 2014, and New York City offered him the position of school chancellor of the largest school district in the country, which he famously turned down on television.


Los Angeles is a challenge. But so was Miami.


The superintendent previously served as head of the Miami-Dade School District, the fourth largest in the country, where 89 percent of students finished secondary school, more than 30 percentage points above what it had been when he took over 13 years before, reported Jornal de Notícias (December 10, 2021).


In February 2022, Lisbon’s native son took over the helm of the Los Angeles school district, the second largest in the country. The district consists of most of the City of Los Angeles, all or parts of several adjoining cities and unincorporated areas in southwestern Los Angeles County. There are more than half a million students and 70,000 employees, Carvalho told television news Fox 11 Los Angeles on the first day of classes, while at a school in the City of Gardena (August 14, 2023). The former high school teacher said that for the first time in the system’s history (of 62 years), every teaching slot was filled before the start of school.

Transitional kindergarten for three- and four-year olds would be available at all schools, not just some, he told television news KTLA 5 (August 9, 2023). The previous year, there were more than 10,000 children. Schools were prepared for 15,000 in the new year. “Get on the right track early on.”


About 80 percent of Los Angeles Unified students come from families living in poverty, and their meals are reimbursed by federal and state programs, according to a Los Angeles Unified School District press release (May 28, 2020).


Chronic absenteeism is a big problem. Carvalho told KTLA 5 that his previous year’s door-to-door visits to understand the reasons for it would resume by himself, the elected seven-member Board of Education and 900 colleagues. The educators had encountered a fear of immigration system, distrust of the schools’ health conditions and, “this breaks my heart”, older siblings staying home to care for their younger brothers and sisters to enable their parents to work. School officials tried to allay their fears and remedy problems. Chronic absenteeism had been reduced from 50 percent by more than 10 percent. “Not enough”. 


Immigrants make up about a third of Los Angeles’ population. The school district welcomed about 13,000 new students from other countries in the 2021-2022 academic year, reported EdSource (June 13, 2023).


Rights of Immigrant Students


For the Portuguese immigrant, the rights of immigrant students are a matter of honor, reported Jornal de Notícias (December 10, 2021). Teachers have a “moral and professional obligation” to educate children, “no questions asked”, he told KTLA 5.


When Carvalho was in Florida, Daniela Pelaez, who was the valedictorian at North Miami High School, faced an imminent deportation order after a federal immigration judge denied her request for a green card (Permanent Resident Card).


“You will be deported over my dead body,” her superintendent told Palaez, in a classroom where they prepared to join a rally of 2,000, who had walked out in protest of the order, reported Education Week (April 11, 2017).

He repeated his vow on television and broadened it to include all his students.


The U.S. Department of Homeland Security granted the Colombian and her sister a two-year deferment, which allowed the graduating student to attend Dartmouth College, an Ivy League university in Hanover, New Hampshire, reported Dartmouth (May 14, 2013).


She graduated from Dartmouth in 2016, according to LinkedIn. After years of working for health-care providers, she listed herself this month as an independent healthcare consultant.


Like Daniela Palaez, Alberto Carvalho could have faced deportation. At age 5, Daniela arrived in the United States with her family, who overstayed their visa.


In 1982, Carvalho arrived at John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York with not one word of English, a secondary school degree and the equivalent of 1,000 euros, which he had saved in contos, the currency at the time, reported Diário de Notícias (March 4, 2018). He was 17.


The teenager washed dishes, waited tables, worked at construction sites, did restoration work and traveled around the country, looking for work. “He did everything,” wrote Público (May 26, 2019).


He also overstayed his visa.


“If the emigration rules were like they are now I probably wouldn’t have stayed,” he told Público.


The times were different. Although Carvalho was not affected, President Ronald Reagan signed a sweeping immigration reform bill into law in 1986. Any immigrant who had entered the country before 1982 was eligible for amnesty, and nearly 3 million undocumented immigrants came forward, reported National Public Radio (July 4, 2010).


The schools chief said that the late U.S. Representative Eugene Clay Shaw Jr., a Florida Republican who served more than a quarter century in Congress, helped him secure his first student visa and work permit, according to Education Week (April 11, 2017).


“Stars as a Blanket”


Before he received those documents legalizing his immigration status and then worked his way through Broward College, a public college in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, and Barry University, a private Catholic university in Miami Shores, Florida, there were some hard times.


He slept, for a month, in a U-Haul, where a friend stored paint, taking in the fumes which stayed in his lungs all day, reported CBS News (November 6, 2014).


“I slept on the street, under the bridge, for a month and a half, so I know exactly what it’s like to have the ground as a mattress and the stars as a blanket,” he told Diário de Notícias, (July 29, 2020). “But I wouldn’t trade my poor childhood and the hardships I went through for anything.”


“If you think you know the face of homelessness, you are probably wrong,” Carvalho told CBS News. “It’s not just the panhandler living under a bridge. It’s people like me, and people like our kids in our schools.”


In Los Angeles, more than 13,000 students are homeless and 2,000 of them stay in shelters, the city’s superintendent said last spring, reported The Associated Press (November 2, 2023).


Survival Programs


On the first day of the 2023-2024 school year, Carvalho said that there would be more after-school support and new programs in the arts and music.


These programs mean more than enrichment. They mean survival.


On November 8, 2022, California voters approved Proposition 28: The Arts and Music in Schools Funding Guarantee and Accountability Act. The measure, introduced and heavily backed by Carvalho’s predecessor, requires the state to establish a new, ongoing program supporting arts instruction in schools beginning in 2023-2024, reported EdSource (December 5, 2022).


The Last Repair Shop was released on September 1, 2023.


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