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A winning playbook – One principal’s game plan to prepare students for college.

• Mike Thomas

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Principal Carlos Ferralls is knocking back his second shot of Cuban coffee, as if he needs it.

Ferralls thinks fast, talks fast, moves constantly and sees everything. The traits that served him well as a three-time, All-America wide receiver in college, and later as a high school coach, now serve him well in the hallways and classrooms of the Doral Academy Preparatory School.

“It is like coaching,” he says. “This is my building, my teachers, my students. What can I do to make them the best? It is about being able to motivate people toward one goal – getting to college.”

Doral Academy is a short drive from downtown Miami. It has yellow walls, a red entrance, an overcrowded parking lot and 3,435 students in grades 6-12.

The main entrance serves as the trophy room. Plaques from Newsweek and U.S. News and World Report celebrate the school’s high academic ranking in Florida and nationally. Pictures of students cover the walls. They are arranged by the college they will be attending. Some are headed to the Ivy Leagues. Forty-two are future Florida Gators.

“Ninety-nine percent of our kids go to college,” says Ferralls. “This is a very rigorous school. The teachers understand that. The students and parents understand that.” Doral1

Doral is one of several top-rated charter schools in Miami-Dade. The student population is 93 percent Hispanic. Sixty percent qualify for the free and reduced price lunch program.

All are here because they want to be. An 8th grader who scored an 800 on the SAT math test received a scholarship offer to one of the area’s most prestigious private schools. He is staying put.

“We have smart kids,” says Ferralls. “They get a quality education they can’t get anywhere else.”

That is why there are 2,500 more students on the waiting list to get in.

Like every good principal, Ferralls knows the quality of his school depends on the quality of his teachers. And so he goes about finding good ones and giving them what they need to do their job.

There are mentors for new teachers and professional development for all teachers. Being a charter school gives Ferralls’ flexibility in building his staff. When he wasn’t happy with the school’s progress in math he recruited a strong math teacher to bolster the program. Now the school’s math team has more than 100 students. At this year’s Mu Alpha Theta Convention, they finished 9th overall in the state with students taking home 31 individual awards.

“If you are a great teacher, we will do what we have to do to get you here,” he says. “You have the freedom to teach kids the way you want to teach them. But there is no coasting. You have to teach.”

The teachers are good with that. In the past school year, out of 150 teachers, he only had to replace six. Two moved to China, one to another county and three were not invited back. 

The teachers benefit from a school atmosphere that allows them to do their job. That means not a lot of disruptions.

“The last time we had a fight was three years ago,” says Ferralls. “You can’t fight. You can’t steal. No drugs. Those are things we don’t tolerate. Once you have no behavior issues, the rest comes easy.”

Ferralls knows firsthand. His father was a political prisoner in Cuba and the family came over during the Mariel Boatlift in 1980. He went to the school of hard knocks in a pretty rough neighborhood. His students will not be subjected to that.

Doral offers 30 Advanced Placement courses, access to any number of virtual courses, blended-learning labs and a comprehensive arts and music program. A new seven-story building is planned that will include a theater, auditorium and arts center.

College is Ferralls’ obsession. The hallways are decorated with college banners. He tracks student success by scores on the ACT and SAT. The school takes students on campus visits, including trips across the country. It helps them write letters, and fill out application forms and financial assistance forms.

There is a major emphasis on dual enrollment. In this year’s graduation class, 45 Doral students already had earned enough college credits to obtain their A.A. degrees from Miami Dade College.

Ferralls knocks back a last shot of coffee. The dismissal bell is going to ring and he has to get going.

“I love my job, man,” he says. “I’m going to die here. There’s going to be a little coffin for me over there. This is heaven.”


Read other posts in the Secrets of Great Schools series:

About the author

Mike Thomas @MikeThomasTweet

Mike Thomas serves in the communications department, writing editorials and speeches. Prior to joining the Foundation, Mike worked for more than 30 years as a journalist with Florida Today and the Orlando Sentinel. He has written investigative projects, magazine feature stories, humor pieces, editorials and local columns. He won several state and national awards, and was named a finalist in the American Society of New Editors’ Distinguished Writing Award for Commentary/Column Writing in 2010. As a columnist for the Orlando Sentinel, he wrote extensively about education reform, becoming one of its chief advocates in the Florida media. Mike graduated from the University of Florida with degrees in political science and journalism. His wife is a teacher and he has two children in public schools. Contact Mike at