Superintendent: Why bridging the K12-higher ed gap is vital to student equity

"If we don't hold [the student's] hand and encourage them on what they can do, they will lose out," says Miami-Dade County Public Schools Superintendent Jose Dotres.

Building strong pipelines between K12 school districts and postsecondary education has long been an elusive puzzle piece. Districts and colleges that can’t get on the same page see their strategies fizzle out. But those who succeed have the opportunity to grow K12 graduation rates and postsecondary enrollment numbers for nontraditional students.

Miami-Dade County Public Schools (M-DCPS) is a testament to the power of collaboration. The district’s graduation rate has surpassed the state average and experienced increases across all major subgroups, including Hispanic, White, Black, English Language Learners, students with disabilities and economically disadvantaged students, Local 10 out of Miami reports. M-DCPS is the third-largest school district in the nation, with over 40,000 employees and 330,000 students.

Miami-Dade College (MDC), a long-established partner to the school district, just so happens to be flourishing in enrollment as well.

For Superintendent Jose Dotres, the key to his student success metrics is looking beyond the district’s enrollment and graduation numbers. It’s about ensuring all of its students are guided by a proactive K12 system that champions their capabilities beyond high school. Through dual enrollment opportunities with MDC and other innovative collaborations with seven technical colleges in the county, Dotres is a strong proponent of the magic that can happen when K12 and higher education are on the same page.

“At the end of the day, if you do a great job of developing school leaders, good things will happen,” he says.

Dotres’ vision is optimal for students seeking pragmatic workforce development tracks in career and technical education. Vocational training opportunities just so happen to be the hottest subgroup of enrollment in higher education, according to the latest numbers from the National Student Clearinghouse. Last week, I sat down with Dotres at our partner District Administration‘s Future of Education and Technology Conference (FETC) in Orlando, Fla., and had the following conversation.

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Note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Thanks to recent legislative changes, you’ll be retiring in 2027 instead of this year. Does that excite you?

Absolutely. I came in for two and a half years, but my ability to stay for up to five years allows me to do even more. Some big-picture programs that we want to do. I’m comfortable knowing that I can start them and see them up to a point where they’re strong and established.

What are some of these programs you’re referring to?

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.

We also have to work to expand 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.

What ultimately happens with students who follow these technical tracks is that more than likely, someone is going to help them become an entrepreneur. So, to me, it’s the combination: Students get a skillset in industry, and they’re able to have their own business. We’re trying to create that structure.

I see. So, it’s not just about cultivating individual skills. It’s about giving them a sound runway to flourish economically. 

One hundred percent. Every year, we’re growing the number of incredible partnerships with our local colleges to make that happen. You know it’s funny. I’m going from early childhood into the postsecondary world and then connecting them in the middle so that students feel prepared.

Of course, the final thing we can never stop doing is creating academic programs that our students are attracted to and that their parents want. There’s a really strong sense of innovating in our educational choices so that we can recruit students, keep them, and have a healthy enrollment in our school district.

I’m very interested in the intersection between K12 and higher education you’re exploring. What attracts you to it so much?

I don’t believe in this concept of stop-and-go: You stop high school and go to college. I believe we have to hold their hands and make sure they make it. Of course, plenty of students take the opportunity to go to college right away, but they have to be motivated and there has to be a high level of discipline. That approach doesn’t work for all students. Some don’t take the immediate steps to get into college, and what happens? They get derailed and lose traction.

For students from needy families and who are economically disadvantaged, the implications for them are even greater. We have to make sure we connect them as quickly as possible.

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 parents couldn’t do that, to make those connections. They wouldn’t have been able to walk me through the registration process at a university. 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.

I don’t think I successfully persisted because I didn’t have the folks around me who expected that from me and helped me solve some of the complexities involved in pursuing that large of a dream. 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.

Alcino Donadel
Alcino Donadel
Alcino Donadel is a UB staff writer and first-generation journalism graduate from the University of Florida. His beats have ranged from Gainesville's city development, music scene and regional little league sports divisions. He has triple citizenship from the U.S., Ecuador and Brazil.

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