"Education is equal to power! I told everyone that"

Maria Christina is a mother of two children, both of whom went to Central Falls High School. We met at La Casona over a bowl of fish soup and a plate of pollo a la parrilla.  We talked about her children, parent leadership at the high school, and the Central Falls community. While we conducted most of our interview in English, we had moments of drifting into Spanish, during which Superintendent Victor Capellan helped make sure I wasn’t missing the point and even interjected once or twice.

Me: Tell me about your kids.

Maria Christina: The older one is twenty-six and the younger is twenty. The younger one is at Rhode Island College. Both were in National Honor Society in high school. They’re both hard workers. They get it from their mother. I’m working on my masters in management and leadership, through work I’m doing with the schools.

Me: Wow, that’s awesome. Why did you get involved with the schools?

Maria Christina: There was barely any parent involvement when my younger one was in high school. I saw Catholic schools where everyone turned up at meetings. It was a full house. At Central Falls High School, I would see only three parents. I asked, “Why isn’t anyone showing up?” I got lots of stories from parents about why they couldn’t come, lots of excuses even, including work. So, I proposed to Mr. Capellan that we start a group for parents that was actually led by parents. I got an energetic response.

Mr. Capellan (under his breath): I couldn’t say "no" to her.

Me: How did you get folks involved?

Maria Christina: Education is equal to power! I told everyone that. I told the parents that I couldn’t do everything myself, we need more parents. I still heard lots of excuses, but an individual email or phone call can really help. I set meetings later at night, after a lot of parents got off from late shifts, to allow us to set aside excuses.

Me: Did it work?

Maria Christina: Now we have two or three hundred parents involved. Not all together at the same time. We have a field day tomorrow and twenty people will participate. We had a parent leadership training last night for a dozen parents. We had almost forty parents at last week’s training.

Me: What are the biggest changes you’ve seen since the parents started getting more involved?

Maria Christina: For a while the teachers and parents were not on the same page. It seemed to us that some teachers didn’t believe in kids. Now they see that the school can work and change our kids’ lives. My daughter just did a criminal justice internship with a local lawyer. Our guidance counselors are working to get our kids connected to college and serious jobs. That wasn’t happening before.

Me: What happened? Was the transformation plan the difference?

Maria Christina: I think people started to care more. They were seriously worried about their jobs, and honestly, I didn’t want them messing with my kid. I was actually a part of the negotiating team [that settled the contentious collective bargaining session in 2010]. That was a tough experience. The teachers in the negotiation were saying horrible things about my children, speaking in generalizations. Saying they could never do any better. I kept telling parents that they had power to change that narrative.

Me: Why were the teachers saying those things?

Maria Christina: Honestly, they felt mistreated by administrators, which I understand. There had been a bunch of turnover in principals. I’m sorry, but that wasn’t my kid’s fault. They wanted more money, but they already made a lot more money than a lot of the parents, so they weren’t getting a lot of sympathy in the community. They were saying it was a dangerous school. I’m sorry, but I walk around in this community everyday, and it’s not heaven, but the children aren’t bad people. You have to accept responsibility. You can’t blame my kids for the results in this school. It wasn’t every teacher saying these things, but even one teacher who has a bad relationship with children can infect the culture.

Me: So what happened?

Maria Christina: We did things to strengthen the parents. We proposed having a room where parents could use phones and computers in the schools. Now it’s a fancy room. We got a “We Are a Village” grant. And Mr. Capellan recruited some people to volunteer to redo the whole room, which is now a parent center.

Me: I’ve been in there, it’s nice. It’s great to see more of the administrative staff speaking fluent Spanish now, too.

Maria Christina: Yes, but parents now no longer see as me as on their side as a result, which is okay. Now that we’ve got all of this done, they view me as part of the district! But that’s the problem with authority. A lot of the parents come from South or Central America, like me, I’m from Colombia. Parents sometimes view the teachers as “the authority.” With me working with the administration, I think it helps parents understand that it’s a partnership, a more equal relationship.

Me: What still needs to happen? What’s your hope for the schools?

Maria Christina: My dream is a community of folks with higher education. More children going to college. Our city is in constant transition, but we need more kids to go to college. If 190 more people in this city had a college degree, it would be amazing.

Mr. Capellan: That would actually be a 1% increase in the residents of this city with a bachelor’s degree. That’s the kind of difference the public schools can make in a small city, setting that kind of ambitious goal.

Me: How else is the school working in partnership with the city?

Maria Christina: We’re talking about how to make sure that all buildings, whether they’re school buildings or city buildings, support everyone in the city. The community center has been closed for four years because of a lack of money. There aren’t a lot of jobs in town, and the jobs that do exist don’t get posted honestly all the time. You have to know someone, and so it’s hard for parents who don’t have connections, or even speak English, to find steady employment. I’ll be happy when I see more employment opportunities for parents.

Me: What’s your profession?

Maria Christina: I was a factory worker until 2011. I moved here from Boston in 2003. I was following the love of my life. But there are no factories here anymore. There haven’t been new jobs in twelve years. Nobody wants to come here since we went into bankruptcy. Taxes are too high now, because we have to pay down creditors. How do we get businesses here without the tax breaks to offer? Education is a big part of the solution!