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Incoming Miami-Dade superintendent says addressing unfinished learning is his top priority

Jose Dotres shakes the hand of Miami Dade School Board Vice Chair Steve Gallon after Dotres was chosen as the district's next superintendent.
Matias J. Ocner
/
Miami Herald
Jose Dotres shakes the hand of Miami-Dade County Public School Board Vice Chair Dr. Steve Gallon III after Dotres was selected as the next superintendent of the state's largest school district.

When Jose Dotres takes office as the next superintendent of Miami-Dade County Public Schools, he’ll be replacing a longtime leader in outgoing superintendent Alberto Carvalho. And he’ll be taking over during a time of crisis, as the pandemic continues to take its toll.

A three-decade veteran of M-DCPS who worked his way up as a teacher, reading coach, principal and district administrator, Dotres says he sought the top job as a way to give back to the community that he says welcomed him at age 5, teaching him English and laying the foundation for his life’s work.

He’ll be taking over as Carvalho ends his 14-year tenure and moves on to become superintendent of the Los Angeles Unified School District.

WLRN education reporter Kate Payne spoke with Dotres about what he’ll face stepping into his new post as leader of the state’s largest school district.

This interview has been lightly edited for clarity

WLRN: For those who may not know, you are a product of Miami-Dade County Public Schools. You’ve spoken about your personal connection to this community, arriving at age five and learning English here, and now you have the opportunity to lead this same district. What’s your top priority?

Dotres: Unfinished learning. Many call it learning loss. But of course, we know that the impact of the pandemic, and I think more importantly, the aspect of students having to engage in virtual learning, it's a difficult thing to do. The strategies that are in place, the supports that are available, the development and training for teachers, in order to be able to respond to this unfinished learning is very, very important.

Right along the academic side of a potential loss that they've experienced, many of them may be sensing issues of mental health, social emotional disconnection. Coming in and, for lack of another word, doing a temperature check, in terms of what structures are in place to address the supports that these students need, in my opinion, there's nothing more important right now.

Even long before COVID, while this district has made major progress in increasing graduation rates and school grades, there are still these significant achievement gaps between black and Hispanic students versus white students. How will you work to close those gaps?

This is something that we need to anchor ourselves into with a lot of commitment. So again, how do we heighten the interventions, the monitoring and the supports that these students need? And I have to tell you, Miami-Dade has done extensive work, separating or cascading resources based on schools that need it the most. And I think in order to close achievement gaps, we may need to do even more of that.

But how else do we go in, looking deeper, connecting with the social emotional side, that may be a differential for many of these students in order to address achievement gaps? It's not only about academics, there's so much more to it than that.

This is an incredibly politicized time in public education. State lawmakers are considering a bill that would prohibit schools from causing students “discomfort” when teaching about issues like discrimination and racism. Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis has continually undermined local control on issues like masks during the pandemic and certainly Miami-Dade has been at the center of some of those fights. Can the district count on you to take a stand on these issues and how would you approach that?

Every community is different. I don't believe this is a situation where you stand alone. But rather you seek the input of the community. You listen and then along with the school board, if you have to take a stand, you do. We must do what's right for children. We must do what's right for our employee base. We must protect the health and safety of all of our employees, of our community.

One of your first challenges may be facing perceptions from some community members that this process was rushed. How do you build trust with those who feel that this process was mishandled?

That weighs heavy on my mind right now and I believe what I can do is really make myself available so they get to know me and they get to know what I'm about. Listen to their concerns, and really provide them an opportunity to express probably what they would have wanted to do earlier in the process.