In Miami, where Spanish is ubiquitous, bilingual education is considered untouchable. So it was perhaps unsurprising that when Miami-Dade County Public Schools began redesigning the district’s foreign language programming for elementary students, members of the public revolted.
The district was phasing out shorter, traditional bilingual classes in favor of more rigorous programming where, for instance, Spanish could be taught in math, science, or social studies classes. But critics called the effort elitist, saying it would create a two-tier bilingual education system that would mostly benefit native Spanish speakers. Opposition to the plan was so fierce, the district postponed it.
Such was the education landscape that Marie Izquierdo inherited when she became the district’s chief academic officer.
Izquierdo, who had had her own reservations about the plan, said she took advantage of the year-long delay by turning foes into allies. Eventually she created a task force that included the plan’s most vocal critics.
“It was a long and painful process,’’ Izquierdo recalled last week in public interviews in Boston. “I ended up having the support of this group that represented all facets of the community, including the biggest naysayers from the beginning.”
Such bridge-building is a hallmark of Izquierdo’s portfolio, say educators and experts who have closely observed her professional ascension through the years.
“She has finesse,’’ said Pamela Stewart, a former Florida education commissioner. “That’s her strength — to see the political nuisances that exist and ... move through that.”
Now she is one of three finalists seeking to become Boston’s next superintendent. The School Committee will likely vote this week.
Izquierdo, a 50-year-old mother of three, grew up in the Little Havana neighborhood of Miami, the daughter of working-class immigrants. Her parents divorced when she was young. (When he died of cancer two years ago, she said, her father was the most decorated Cuban-American who served in the Vietnam War. )
Her mother worked hard to make ends meet, and young Izquierdo found refuge with her grandparents. Both had been lawyers in Cuba, and her grandmother was the equivalent of a superintendent there.
“She would tell stories about how she would travel from province to province on horseback checking on schools,’’ Izquierdo recalled.
When they came to Miami in the 1950s, the couple left their jewelry and prized possessions buried in their backyard in Cuba hoping to return home one day.
As a child, Izquierdo was an English language learner and found her “happy place” at school, an oasis from her parents’ decade-long custody battle for her — their only child.
Izquierdo appeared relaxed in public appearances in Boston last week as she recounted her upbringing and Cuban heritage, her nearly 25 years of professional experience in education, and her track record that includes turning around low-performing schools, narrowing the achievement gap among student groups, and diversifying the teaching staff.
“I’m very happy inside,’’ she told reporters Monday. “I’m really excited to get to the end of this comprehensive selection process.”
She told reporters she is most excited about how much Boston residents want to ensure equity for all students in their school system, saying she is eager to be their champion.
Izquierdo was educated in the Miami-Dade school system. She earned her bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Florida International University in Greater Miami, and returned to the school district in 1991 where she had found refuge — this time as a teacher.
The former social studies teacher worked for 10 years as an assistant principal and an elementary school principal in Little Havana before leaving the district in 2009 for nearly a year to work for the Florida Department of Education as a regional director in the Bureau of School Improvement.
The commission recruited Izquierdo to transform low-performing school districts, recalled Stewart, who was on the search committee that selected her. With data as her guide, she worked with superintendents and school leaders, effectively empowering them to make the critical changes, Stewart added.
“She did that better than most in letting them think they were in charge while she worked to implement policies that work,’’ Stewart said. “She did not go into the schools dictating what should happen. But she was able to make people feel they were included’’ in the end.
Izquierdo returned to the Miami-Dade as a deputy chief of staff, before becoming an assistant superintendent, and now chief academic officer of the nation’s fourth largest school system.
The district, with nearly 350,000 students and 435 schools, stretches from the agricultural center of Homestead to downtown and to Miami Beach — covering extreme wealth, poverty, and everything in between, Stewart said. Students speak an array of languages, including Spanish and Haitian Creole.
Izquierdo supervises 1,200 employees and manages a budget of over $350 million, her resume says. In that role, she led efforts that boosted graduation rates to historic highs, reduced the number of D and F schools and narrowed the achievement gap for blacks, Hispanics and other disenfranchised students.
Mark Rosenberg, president of Florida International University who knows Izquierdo professionally, said she has the temperament, training, and skills to tackle a politically demanding and challenging school district like Boston’s.
“It’s the next logical move for Marie,’’ Rosenberg. “If she has survived in this Miami environment and prospered, you should assume that she is pragmatic enough” to deal with Boston.
Michael Casserly, executive director of the Council of the Great City Schools, a coalition of the nation’s largest urban school districts, including Boston, said Izquierdo is personable and nice, but noted that she is “no pushover.”
He became familiar with her work in Miami after doing a detailed case study on school districts that were making fast improvements on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, known as the nation’s report card. It is the only national assessment given across the country and it showed that Miami-Dade demonstrated unusually progress in fourth- and eighth-grade reading and mathematics, he said.
Being superintendent would be a natural step of Izquierdo, he added.
“The really good people in her field want the toughest challenges,’’ Casserly said. “They don’t shy away from them. They don’t think they are too hard to tackle. Anybody worth their salt in urban education wants to do the right thing for as many kids as they can possibly work for.”