"We're all working on being better"

Therese is a another parent in Central Falls, Rhode Island. She has two daughters, one in college and one in high school. We talked about her experience as a parent during the tumultuous transformation of Central Falls High School.

Me: Tell me about how you got to Central Falls.

Therese: I moved from Pawtucket to Central Falls because there was a shootout on my street. That was a long time ago. I’ve lived on a quiet street in CF for twenty-three years. My kids, Kellie and Jessica, they struggled to feel like part of the community. They always felt some distance, since we speak English at home and almost all of the other families in the public schools are native Spanish speakers.

Me: What was it like during the transformation period?

Therese: Teachers resented the parents. Parents resented the teachers. It was World War III. My daughter Kellie has an individualized education plan and I was worried about her going to the high school.

Me: How did that change?

Therese: I took a parent leadership class. I was one of three parents out of about thirty who didn’t speak Spanish. The meeting was conducted in Spanish. I was the one who had to wear the headset. It was like “Oh my god, I never realized how the other parents felt.” I felt so out of place, like I didn’t belong. Because I spoke English!

Me: What did you do next?

Therese: I became a leader in the new Parent Teacher Student Organization. I took leadership classes. The ones Maria Christina started. But it was still hard. Two years in a row Kellie had teachers who left. But we didn’t give up on her, or the school. She’s a freshman at Rhode Island College now. There was a coalition between the high school and the college that allowed her to get some credits while in high school. I never expected her to get a four-year degree, but the high school pushed. I always thought she’d go to community college, if that. It’s a dream for her to be in college. Everybody should be able to have that option.

Me: What are the major differences between the high school now and five years ago?

Therese: There’s much better community perception. People are welcome. Parents are welcome. It used to be that if you weren’t pushy, you didn’t get a response from the school. To cross that line was particularly hard if you didn’t speak English, because a bunch of the office staff didn’t speak Spanish. You needed a home-school liaison, who wasn’t always free, to translate. But parents and teachers come together now. We had to tell teachers, “We’re not here to hurt you, we’re here to help you. But you have to listen to what we’re saying about our kids.”

Me: Why do you think things became so broken between the parents and teachers?

Therese: The principal kept changing. Every year. There was massive instability. The teachers were frustrated. There needed to be a heavy hand to fix the situation, but I think firing everyone would have gone too far. Even though that didn’t ever end up happening since everyone got hired back. But that whole situation meant that the first year was a waste. Teachers were so mad, a bunch of them didn’t even come to school. Kellie had subs for months at a time. She was like, “Mom, all I have are subs, why am I even bothering to go to school?”

Me: How long did that last?

Therese: Things got way better the next year. Things were under control. Which is good, because I started to think about a lot of other options that I had. There are charter schools in town that I like. I was scared enough that I thought about sending her to live in Somerset with my sister. But I saw things getting better each year. I’m glad I was assertive at the beginning, because I kept that power throughout.

Me: What do you want now?

Therese: My biggest fear is that things don’t continue to improve. We have another transition here with Mr. Capellan becoming superintendent. That’s good news, because it means that things should keep going. But I’m still worried.

Me: What are you doing professionally right now?

Therese: I’m on disability so I don’t work. I help answering phones in the office of the high school some days. It lets me see what’s going on.

Me: Which is what?

Therese: There are excellent leaders in the school now. We need to make sure those leaders stay, that the principals put in more than a year. It’s not fair to the teachers if they keep having changes like that. There are more after school activities than ever. My daughter is in an African dance recital this week. It’s hilarious, because my husband still loves to wave his American flag and insist that everyone should speak English. I used to have similar prejudices, but I’ve changed. We’ll see how he reacts to the African dance recital. We’re all working on being better.