If you were to take an afternoon to meander through Hialeah, Florida, you might understand why it would be easy to call it a place of great contrast. Palm trees and power lines, Spanish and English (and Creole), affluence and poverty. In many ways, Hialeah, the self-styled City of Progress, is a microcosm of Miami-Dade County, its best and its worst, all in one sprawling, humid swath of land stretching out into the reclaimed swampland northwest of Miami proper.
Nationally, Hialeah is most recognizable as the home of Hialeah Park, the legendary horse track first opened in 1922 and known for, among other things, the iconic pink flamingoes that wade in its pools.
Demographically, Hialeah’s home of Miami-Dade County is perhaps best known as the destination of Cuban-American refugees following the Cuban revolution. Cubans now represent about a third of the population of Miami, with whites of European descent around twelve percent. The remaining fifty-some percent of the city is primarily Black American, Afro-Carribbean American, and Hispanic Americans from throughout Latin America. This makes the demographics of the area not only exceptionally diverse, but also an unusual phenomenon in the United States.
Doing the Most with the Least
Aside from being home to many immigrants and first-generation families, there is another challenge that defines the area: Miami-Dade has one of the highest cost of living to income ratios in the country, meaning that people earn less and pay more just to live. This factor has a wide-ranging impact, affecting family economics, living arrangement preferences, as well as crime, gang activity, and other social ills resulting from poverty.
This exposition is not just a by-the-numbers overview of the city of Hialeah, but the beginning of a story about the people of Hialeah. They speak Spanish, English, and Creole. They often live in poverty, their dollars not stretching as far as their counterparts in other U.S. cities. Cultural focus on academic goals is often modest, favoring the necessity of getting by, over an investment in the future. Facing these challenges—along with the social, academic, and emotional challenges that all high schoolers face—students often languish.
Which leads us to Hialeah Educational Academy, a public charter school serving the City of Hialeah, a high school where ninety percent of students qualify for free and reduced lunch, but one that has a ninety seven percent graduation rate.
A Unique School With a Unique Community Partnership
Hialeah Educational Academy, or HEA, is unusual in more respects than the academic achievement of its students. The campus sprawls across a square of land covered in baseball fields, basketball courts, and woven together with paved walkways where uniformed students traverse between buildings for class in the summery heat. Along the edges of the campus, there is an active fire station, an active fire training tower, and an active police substation, where students attend classes in academies taught by actual firefighters, police officers, attorneys, and other civil servants.
So far, HEA offers academies in criminal justice, forensic science, firefighting, first responder, law, and education—all in partnership with the City of Hialeah, and supported by the various agencies that provide resources to give students instruction in these disciplines. In some sense a vocational school, its students may or may not go into the careers that they study, but as Principal Carlos Alvarez puts it, “At least they get out of HEA learning a specific trait. Whether they choose to apply it or not in the future is up to them.”
Mr. Alvarez was born and raised in Hialeah, which he reveals with more than a glimmer of pride. He speaks confidently, stands up straight, and radiates pride when conversation turns to his students, and to HEA—and that shared sense of purpose, that sense of community is reflected in the attitudes of the students of HEA. As we explore the campus and get to know the students of HEA, and hear about their goals and the challenges they’ve overcome, there is a sentiment that surfaces again and again: “He [Mr. Alvarez] is like a father figure to us. He taught us that we’re a family.”
Believing in a Student That May Not Believe in Themselves
There’s no denying that Carlos is what you might call old school. His belief in building character, instilling discipline, and teaching citizenship fits well at a school where many students attend academies for police work, firefighting, and other public services. Perhaps what is most encouraging is how well this belief seems to have stuck with the students. As an outsider on campus, its effectiveness actually causes a bit of a culture shock. Even when Principal Alvarez is nowhere to be seen, students open doors for you, and answer questions with “yes, sir,” and “no, ma’am.” When you enter a classroom, the students stand up to welcome you.
With all of the students dressed smartly in collared HEA shirts, bulldog-adorned sweaters, and chino pants—friendly smiles and positive attitudes abound—it’s easy to momentarily forget the taxing realities that all too many of HEA’s students have endured. In one classroom, we come across a teacher working closely with a handful of students speaking Spanish. The teacher explains that one of the students has just arrived in the states as a refugee, speaks no English, and that students are helping her get started. This is just one story, but one that we saw firsthand, demonstrative of the community that has been built at HEA.
This type of character, this type of community, has been built by a faculty and leader determined to empower the students of HEA to create a better future. As Mr. Alvarez puts it, “What inspires me is the opportunity to make a change. To mold the student, to have that child turn around… to believe in that child when he or she doesn’t believe in themselves.”
Creating a Culture
While Hialeah Educational Academy may sound like something of a stoic utopia, the discipline and courteousness are just unusual overtones of its community of otherwise normal high schoolers—with a little Hialeah flair. At lunch, kids smile and laugh with their friends, sit outside in the Florida sunshine, and circle around intense games of dominoes in the shade of the cafeteria’s eaves. In the front office, students taking an administrative elective use Hero to track attendance and log visitors, while lending assistance to the administrative staff throughout the day.
In class, students seem mostly engaged, enthusiastic participants in the programs that they’ve chosen as their vocational path. Many of them tell us that they don’t plan on being a first responder, or a firefighter, but extoll the virtues of a well-rounded education. It’s a culture of achievement. One of HEA’s most important ideas, championed by Principal Alvarez and written on walls around campus, goes as follows: “it’s not whether or not you’re going to college, it’s which college are you going to?” Given HEA’s graduation rates and the walls of University logos denoting where HEA graduates are attending, it seems to be working.
Never Stop Improving
HEA, like many schools, began using Hero to help streamline discipline and behavior redirection processes, track attendance and tardiness, and keep track of visitors. “Character development and academic rigor,” as Principal Alvarez puts it, “have been a part of the culture that we have instilled from day one. But as a principal, you have to believe in continuous improvement. You can never become complacent. You can never settle.”
This determination and vision for continuous improvement led Carlos and his team to turn, with the help of Hero, towards positive behavior reinforcement as a method to recognize students in a positive way. As Mr. Alvarez puts it, “Think about it. As an administrator, the effort you’re going to get from teachers, faculty, and staff, is going to be documenting negative behaviors. Students are off task. They’re not doing what they’re supposed to.”
“When I’m out there in the hallways and I’m in the classrooms, and doing my walkthroughs, I’m observing that students are engaged, and teachers are teaching. But I find even for myself that I’m looking for negative behaviors. But if I stop and think about it for a moment, I’m also seeing all the positive things that are going on, and so I questioned: Why don’t I start looking for a kid that’s participating? Why don’t I start looking for a kid that’s engaged? Why don’t I look for the kid that I’ve spoken to several times and now, is finally doing what they’re supposed to? I should apply the same energy into recognizing, and commending students for the great things that they’re doing.”
In partnership with Hero, HEA dove into positive behavior recognition the only way they know how: with their foot on the gas. They created posters to raise awareness about the program, created a hype among students and staff, and capitalized on all of the positive things already happening around campus.
The day we show up to see their program in action is the day of their first food truck party, which has since become a monthly event that students love—and is the inspiration for Hero’s food truck play. Beaming students mingle and dance to music from a live DJ, capturing memories on their phones, laughing, and having a good time. With the Taco Fresh food truck parked just outside of the courtyard, Principal Alvarez mans the mic at the DJ booth to remind the students why they’re there, commend the students being recognized for their achievements, and invites them to get free lunch as a reward. After the first round of students get their tacos, the rest of the students cheerfully queue up for more of the same.
For the record, after the students went back to class, we couldn’t help but line up ourselves. The tacos were amazing.
It Takes a Village
The HEA team believes that cultural shifts may start at the top, and then with a few people, but in order to succeed, the vision has to trickle down to the faculty. And because of the energy and momentum that the HEA team put into their program, that’s exactly what happened. Faculty was trained to refocus on the positive, to give points for positive behavior, for small things that might otherwise be taken for granted, but deserve recognition.
In HEA’s front office, jumping from task to task, orchestrating the finer details of the school’s day-to-day, you’ll find Nathalia Rodriguez. Attendance manager, administrative assistant to Mr. Alvarez, and head of the school administration elective, Nathalia plays a key role in just about everything that happens in the school. Soft spoken and friendly, with a winsome smile, she is a part of the “Village” surrounding the kids at HEA. What inspires her about HEA, she says, is “We’re like a family. We don’t only worry about academics, but about the students’ well-being.”
As for how Hero has changed her work life, Nathalia beams, “It helps me a lot because it is very time efficient in regards to reports. It’s easier to keep track of students, that way I have more time to do everything else I need to accomplish around the school.” And that everything else is certainly a lot, but for Nathalia and the rest of the administrative staff, all of the effort is definitely worth it. And if you look at the behavioral outcomes of HEA students, and their academic success, it’s working exceptionally well.
In getting to know Carlos and Nathalia, members of staff, and the students of HEA, it’s hard not to come away with a sense of pride that Hero is helping them do amazing work in a community that desperately needs their leadership. Not only does Hialeah Educational Academy push the envelope with the academy concept, giving students real world skills, their academic results are among the best in the state of Florida. As Carlos notes, HEA has been recognized as one of the top schools in the country, one of the schools doing the most with the least. The impact cannot be overstated.
The sense of community, the citizenship that they’re building at Hialeah Educational Academy is apparent from the moment you step onto campus; it practically hangs in the air. Through the right kinds of discipline, and the right kinds of encouragement, students have come away with a sense of responsibility, care and concern for one another, respect, and—perhaps most importantly—genuine hope and confidence for the future.
As HEA student Christian Lanza puts it, “With the positive points that we can get for doing something nice or helping someone, it motivates us to be good and to do what we’re supposed to. I think that’s very good with what we’re trying to show here, and the family setting that we’re trying to start up here at HEA.”
This type of student experience—confidence in doing the right thing, in feeling like a part of the school community—is what inspires us at Hero to build the tools that help educators do their best work. Through redirection, reinforcement, and communication, Principal Alvarez and his team have built, brick by brick, a school culture that is truly exceptional, and transformative in the lives of their students—many of whom need all of the opportunities they can get. For these reasons and more, we hope you find their story as inspirational as we do, and that, as an educator, their accomplishment gives you the spark that helps you lay your next brick.