Alberto Carvalho: ‘How do you do it?’

A few weeks ago, District Administration sat down with Alberto Carvalho, superintendent at the Los Angeles Unified School District in California, the second-largest in the country to learn about what he calls the ‘new age’ of the superintendency.

In our final moments with him, we asked what his preparation and mindset looked like to begin a career of leading school districts with student enrollments in the hundreds of thousands from day one. Here’s what he had to say:

Carvalho: Listen. Certainly, the size and the scope can be intimidating, right? As the saying goes, ‘How do you move a mountain? One pebble at a time.’ Make sure you have a lot of people moving one pebble at a time. Don’t do it alone.

The preparation—I go back to the things I value the most. Improving the skillset that you have as a leader going into the job is important. I don’t believe in this concept, ‘If I’m hired as  CEO, there will be a runway for me to use in terms of perfecting my skillset to effectuate rapid change.’ That’s why ensuring your critical sets math the ‘need’ set is important.

I deliberated that particularly as I was making the decision about coming to Los Angeles. I knew what the finances were. I knew what the educational profile was. I knew who the advocacy voices were. So how do you prepare? It’s as much about having the knowledge of strategy and the skillset for the work as it is about having strategic understanding and tools in the toolbox and actions to deal with the condition that you’re going to be facing.

I think a lot of folks sometimes fight for the position, but they really don’t understand the different layers of difficulty that they will encounter. I prepare myself in that way. The 100-day plan was released within days after I arrived here, which means I was doing a lot of advanced work and research. I encourage people to do that. Have your own 100-day plan, not released weeks or months after you arrive. Your 100-day plan needs to reflect the best thinking and the best specific actions you will take on the basis of what you have learned.

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Then, there’s this element that cannot be taught. I’m lucky that I have it, which is a huge personal chip on your shoulder that’s driven by a lived experience. No mistake about it. The fact that I was raised by a third-grade-educated father and mother, custodian and seamstress, that I grew up in abject poverty, with six kids and was the only one who graduated high school, immigrated after working in really difficult conditions to this country, was unaccompanied in this country, was homeless sleeping under the bridge blocks away from the office where I became superintendent. Not everybody has that. To me, that is a huge source of energy to do the work I do, because so many kids around us actually live that experience 40 years after I lived it, which I find unacceptable and inexplicable.

When you have all that knowledge about effective leadership there to push yourself to format your general knowledge of pedagogy, budget, law, operations, human resources and technology in such a specific manner that is so relevant to the issues you’re going to inherit a superintendent, by the time you land, you’re already running at the pace needed, rather than asking, ‘How fast do I need to go?’