CENTRAL FALLS — Trumpeting the success of the sometimes difficult and tumultuous transformation of Central Falls High School that began in 2010 with the threat to fire all the teachers, Superintendent Frances Gallo told a group of educators Tuesday that “from the depths of despair and resentment, our school has arrived.”
As a result, Gallo said as she addressed the 2011 High School Transformation Summit, “families, parents, students and teachers, that core family, can truly dream big because everyone is committed to reaching those big dreams.
“More than anything else,” Gallo said, “Central Falls High is a family and families stay together.”
Superintendents, principals, teachers, students, and other educators from several small urban New England school districts – including Brockton, Mass., and Hartford, Conn., took a tour of the school then gathered in the auditorium for panel discussions before participating in “breakout sessions” on topics such as classroom teaching, family and community engagement and multiple pathways toward high school graduation.
David Hernandes, a CF High senior and student government leader, recalled the atmosphere at the school after the state Department of Education tagged it as a persistently low-performing school and, in response, Gallo fired the entire teaching staff, allowing most to come back after a long and frequently acrimonious negotiating process.
“A few years ago, as a result of the teacher firings and many other reasons, many teachers decided not to come
back for the following year,” Hernades said from the auditorium stage. “Knowing that they didn’t come back created an absence of not only our teachers, but also our friends, confidants and role models.
“The absence of teachers and many other reasons created chaos everywhere, created a toxic environment and created an interruption of education that was constant,” he recalled. “It seemed that students were not being punished appropriately for disrespectful actions. For many reasons, learning was negatively influenced.
“However,” Hernandes added, “now with this excellent transformation, many things have changed. Now Central Falls is a positive, an optimistic and welcoming community, with many talented students and athletes.”
Marcella Garces, 1994 graduate of CF High and now a 10-year veteran teacher, said, “I do not see my employment with the Central Falls School District as a job, but as a life-changing career choice. Working in this district has given me the opportunity and the awesome responsibility to change the lives of our children.
“The first year of transformation was stressful and full of tension,” Garces acknowledged. “Teachers were hurt. We had all been through so much and we were skeptical. It was hard to tell what the true intentions of the transformation reform were. So much was changing so quickly.
“Central Falls High School has only gotten better,” she said, adding that the administration this year has taken a more personal approach to teacher evaluations. “It no longer feels that via a formal evaluation, you might lose your job.
Robert Scappini, a social studies teacher at the high school who taught Garces when she was a student, admitted that, “Transformation is an uphill climb.
“There’s no option here,” he said, “we can’t fail. These kids show up every day, eager to work, eager to learn, and it is our job to make sure they get to the next level.
Despite all the good news and sunny optimism, however, money troubles, as they so often do in Central Falls, reared their head.
“Financing of the entire district definitely is in trouble,” Gallo warned. She noted that a new school funding formula adopted last year “sees to it that the city starts to pick up its – quote – fair share and from the receiver’s perspective there is no real opportunity for that to happen. So Central Falls as a district needs to make some really tough decisions in the next few months and then going on for the next seven years as we phase in the continual loss every year of $1.8 million. We’re not sure how that’s going to work out, but it bodes trouble for us all. Funding is definitely an issue.”