"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.

"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!

"When someone fights with me, they earn my loyalty"

Today on the blog I interview Evelyn, a young woman who just graduated from Central Falls High school. Evelyn met me at Amanda’s Kitchen, a little greasy spoon in Pawtucket, Rhode Island, on her way to a job interview. She sat down at the corner table and ordered a decaf coffee, which she barely touched the whole time we talked. She is eighteen-years-old, although her dark-rimmed glasses give her a sophisticated look that makes it hard to pin down her age. She told me about herself.

Evelyn: I came here from Guatemala when I was five-years-old. I started school in Central Falls halfway through kindergarten. I hated it. Nobody would talk to me. I didn’t speak the language. Only one little girl would be my friend, because she spoke Spanish too. I couldn’t even tell anyone I needed to use the bathroom.

Me: How long did that last?

Evelyn: I actually started enjoying school later that year. My mom never had to tell me to do anything, because I’ve always been tough. I made honor roll in elementary school. In eighth grade I started spending most of my time with another group of kids, there were eleven of us, and we all ended up taking honors and AP classes together in high school.

Evelyn was in eighth grade when the Central Falls school board voted to fire all of the teachers in the high school. Although that decision was reversed before the following fall, the school and district spent the better part of 2010 trying to figure out how to recover from the fallout of that moment.

Me: Was all of the news distracting? You were about to be a freshman at a high school that was on national news almost every day.

Evelyn: I’m proud to be from Central Falls. I got a great education, I took advantage of all the opportunities in front of me. I was too busy to listen to the negativity. There were lots of crazy changes the year before I started high school. I thought, “This is either going to be a really good experience or a really bad one!”

Me: How did you do in high school?

Evelyn: I had a great experience. I got really involved in the transformation of the school and the city. I took all honors and AP classes. When I was a sophomore I went to City Hall with group of students to talk to the mayor. He told us the parks and recreation department needed help, so we organized a park cleanup. I got about 60 kids to show up on a Saturday. We found lots of ways to contribute.

Me: What did you do after high school?

Evelyn: I did a semester at Rhode Island College. I couldn’t get any financial aid because I’m an immigrant. I took a lot of hours at a job to make ends meet. I was coming home at two or three o’clock in the morning from a job at a restaurant with no time for homework. I thought “Why am I doing this?” So, I took a break this spring.

Me: Will you go back?

Evelyn: I’m not sure. I want to. I am trying to get an internship. But I don’t know why I’m going to college right now. I don’t have the luxury of going just because it’s the right thing to do. I can’t do something without a bigger purpose. My mom is my number one supporter, and she is like, “I want you to go back to school.” My brother dropped out, and they want more from me. I get what she wants, but is she going to pay for me to go back? It’s not that simple.

Me: How does that make you feel?

Evelyn: I’m not the only one. A lot of students came here when they were young and can’t go to college, even though they grew up completely American and had no choice. I busted my hump for twelve years in public schools and I don’t get the same opportunities just because I moved here from another country when I was five. I don’t need anyone’s sympathy or sorrow. I don’t need that. If I have to struggle, I have to struggle. I’ll get through it.

Me: Tell me about the rest of your family.

Evelyn: My sister is nine years old. It’s rough, because it’s a big age difference. I help her with homework. I took her to visit the high school and she had a little freak out moment because she doesn’t want to go to college. She has all the opportunities I wish I had, because she was born here. A few years makes a big difference! She can go to college! I was like, “Keep going!” I am who I am because of what I had to go through. I wouldn’t change who I am to have what she has.

Me: What don’t people understand about your experience?

Evelyn: People underestimate me. I’d like to think that I have the will to make a difference. For me and for the world. When someone fights with me, they earn my loyalty.

Evelyn started high school the same day that newly installed superintendent Victor Capellan joined the district to lead the high school’s transformation. He's one of the people who fights with Evelyn. Later this week I will share part of my conversation with Superintendent Capellan. He’ll help us connect some dots about Evelyn’s experience, including what it’s like to be a “Dreamer,” the group of kids who came to this country as small children and have to navigate a treacherous legal and financial process to attend college. 

"If I have to struggle, I have to struggle"

Yesterday, just before the lunch rush, Victor Capellan and I walked into La Casona, the biggest sit down restaurant in the little city of Central Falls, Rhode Island. The waitress on duty flashed a smile of braces with pink rubber-bands and gave Victor a hug. He greeted every table on the way to the corner we occupied for the rest of the day.

We sat down and he reminded me where La Casona used to be. “See that place down the street?” he said, pointing out the window, towards an auto parts store and a takeout restaurant. “They used to have a small storefront operation up the block, but now they have this whole place.” The new restaurant has a bar, a split-level first floor, and a big mezzanine with additional seating. Behind Victor’s head were two tall vases full of yellow calla lilies, which, in retrospect, may have been fake, but were still very pretty.

I have had many meals in Central Falls over the last five years, but I had never heard of the place before it made national headlines in 2010. First, after years of mismanagement and a crippling recession, the city went into bankruptcy, which became emblematic of the fiscal turmoil that still haunts Rhode Island state and municipal finances.

Second, in the wake of the Obama administration’s stimulus package, the school district tried to use the leverage created by new federal school improvement policy to fire all of its teachers, which threw salt on a particularly contentious collective bargaining session.

“That’s in the past now, which is hard to believe,” Victor reminded me. Just last week he was appointed superintendent of the city school system, which covers one square mile just north of its larger cousin, Providence. A trip down the main drag in “CF” reveals double decker houses sharing gridded city streets with old mills and warehouses, evidence of the textile jobs that don’t exist anymore. La Casona’s expansion is emblematic of a modest economic rebound in a city that still has far to go.

Victor and I spent all day talking to students, former pupils, parents, and even the town’s mayor. What emerged was the picture of a city that is grappling with its past while trying to secure a stable future. That was apparent when talking to Evelyn, who at eighteen years old is struggling to afford the college education that she always thought was hers for the taking, but became somewhat less straightforward when she found out that she was “undocumented” as a sophomore honors student in high school. “I busted my hump for twelve years in public schools,” she told me, “and I don’t get the same opportunities just because I moved here from another country when I was five. I don’t need anyone’s sympathy or sorrow. If I have to struggle, I have to struggle. That’s why I am the way I am.”

It came through in my conversation with Therese, a mother of two who has to wear a headset to hear the translations of PTO meetings, because she doesn’t speak the lingua franca of the parent committee: Spanish. “It gave me a better appreciation of what my Spanish-speaking neighbors experience everywhere else,” Therese, who was born in the United States and is one of the few English speaking parents at Central Falls High School, said. “My husband still waves his American flag and thinks everyone should have to speak English, but I have a much different perspective now.”

Five years ago, there were CNN trucks parked outside of Central Falls High school almost everyday. President Obama and American Federation of Teachers president Randi Weingarten traded jabs over the situation. If you worked in education at the time, you couldn’t avoid having an opinion about Central Falls. Now, the schools are better, as scores are up and graduation rates have increased by double-digits, but there is still a lot of work to do. I decided to revisit Central Falls to figure out how a school system and its home city return from rock bottom, what kind of energy that takes, and what happens when the news cameras leave. Over the next couple of weeks I will be sharing the extended versions of my conversations with Evelyn, Therese, Victor, Mayor James Diossa, and others as I try to make sense of a story that is hard to unpack, especially for the folks living in it.