It would be easy for Jose Dotres, Superintendent of Miami-Dade County Public Schools (M-DCPS), to step back and celebrate a district milestone exemplifying his dedication to all students.
With over 330,000 students, the nation’s third-largest school district’s graduation rate has surpassed the state average at 90.3%. It has also managed to punch up across all major subgroups, including Hispanic, White, Black, English Language Learners, students with disabilities, and economically disadvantaged students, Local 10 out of Miami reports.
But for Dotres, there is still a lot of work to be done, and he’s excited for the challenge. Thanks to recent legislative changes, Dotres will retire in 2027 rather than June. While he’s proven himself to be more than a capable leader and earned every board member’s vote on a contract extension, job security as a superintendent in Florida has never been more fraught. The state has gone through 61 new chief executives in 67 districts over the past four years, Tampa Bay Times reports.
Last week, I caught up with Dotres at District Administration’s Future of Education and Technology Conference (FETC) in Orlando, Fla., to hear what’s on his agenda and how he’s learned to navigate a new political environment.
Note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
What are some programs you are looking forward to working on now that you have three more years of runway ahead of you?
The expansion of early childhood is really important. We’ve been limited in some areas to help children three years old and younger, and we want to do that. We want to be able to have students with us from the very beginning and walk them through the ultimate bridge to postsecondary education. We need to prepare students better, and the way to do it is to start them as early as possible.
The other area that I’ve been focusing on is this bridge into college and university and expanding our workforce development career tracks. We have seven technical colleges in our county, and we have to expand postsecondary opportunities into very high-paying careers that do not necessarily require a four-year degree. I’m not saying one or the other; I’m saying we need to provide the opportunity for students to do both.
I’m going from early childhood into the postsecondary world and connecting them in the middle to prepare students.
Being that you were a non-English speaking immigrant from Cuba coming into Miami-Dade’s school system, it’s understandable why you’re so dedicated to expanding student success and postsecondary access for all. How did you succeed decades ago without the support systems you’ve currently helped put in place?
You hit home.
My source of inspiration and motivation was through a local church that all of us Cuban immigrants went to. We had Friday meetings where I had several mentors who made sure I registered at Miami-Dade College and went. And while pursuing college also had a lot to do with my personality, I didn’t succeed in pursuing my dream track as a pediatrician.
That’s why I worry about students right now. They may not have the resources or impetus to go through processes alone that appear too complex. If we don’t hold their hand and encourage them on what they can do, they will lose out.
I want to shift the conversation and talk about the DeSantis administration. I imagine your relationship with the Florida Department of Education must be complex. You’ve expressed how political pressure can “impact work morale,” but by the same token, Republicans have prioritized creating affordable, accessible career pathways.
How do you guide your district through changing politics and the increased pressures on school leaders?
Every legislative body brings positive aspects to the table. In Florida, workforce and career development has been huge, and never before have I seen the emphasis on creating these postsecondary pathways that were not in place. Enhancing educator salaries has been important as well.
In terms of some other aspects, as a superintendent, I need to be careful and not get caught up in the narrative—on one side or the other. My role is to ensure students are supported, teachers are developed and principals are equipped to address the issues confronting them. I can’t get involved in political narratives. The moment I do that, my eye becomes distracted. We have to steer neutral and stay focused. That is absolutely it.
Thank you for that. Well, we are in Orlando for a reason: FETC 2024. What’s your experience with education technology? It can be overwhelming to think about all the different ways technology can supplement districts today. Is there any specific capacity you see edtech helping your district? Anything you have your eye on?
Since I was a principal in 2001, I’ve always prioritized learning technologies that are adaptive in nature and provide information that helps teachers take immediate action for the learning paths of students. That is the most important thing. Teachers power up their lessons when they can pivot from a general approach filled with misconceptions about students’ struggles.
I’m excited about AI coming into play to assist teachers in lesson planning and powering up their content knowledge. It’s something we can’t fear. We have to welcome it. But of course, there have to be some guardrails, especially for students. It’s a changing world, but technology can do a lot to help us.
However, we don’t want to come into classrooms and see students completely engaged with laptops. That’s almost the equivalent of them being on their iPhones. You have to sustain cooperative learning and the interaction with teachers.
What can you see yourself doing upon retirement?
I think I will forever stay in the K12 space. I would love to mentor other school leaders. If you do a great job of developing school leaders, things will happen. Teachers will get the support that they need.
I also see a space for me in higher education in teacher preparation and leadership development. I’d love to help universities rethink some of their teaching preparation programs. Sometimes, they’re not aligned with what school districts need, but many great things are happening here in Florida with the Teacher Apprenticeship Program.
It’s about assisting whomever I can to elevate their school districts and do what’s best for their communities.