The World They Created at Central Falls
Last December I wondered how long it would take to change the culture at Central Falls High School in Rhode Island. Under the best of circumstances, I thought, a turnaround would take at least three years, and that would require teachers and administrators working together to change expectations for kids. But first teachers would have to get past the shock and resentment of being fired and then rehired. Extra pay for an extended school day was not the magic balm to heal those wounds. That would take real expertise on the part of the administration, I thought, if it could be accomplished at all. I recalled what happens when teachers strike: Some schools never really recover as long as the majority of the teachers who walked out are still on staff.
By May I noted that it appeared that things were worse than ever in Central Falls. Faculty absenteeism had spiked and some teachers resigned. Teachers reported unreasonable stress, which, of course, filtered down to the kids.
As the school limps to the end of the school year, it appears that all the strife has been for naught. Almost 30 teachers have resigned. Teachers point to a complete lack of trust in their administrators, and the state education commissioner concurs. “If people aren’t working together, there’s no chance for [transformation] success,” says Deborah Gist.
In an interview a couple of days ago on NPR Gist says that Central Falls may eventually be shut down (which she said months ago) or turned into a charter school. In the meantime Rhode Island state legislators are wondering what the district did with the $1,000,000 in federal funds it received for the school’s transformation.
I noted in an earlier blog Fordham reseacher David Stuit’s report, “Are Bad Schools Immortal?” Stuit tracked over 2000 low performing schools from 2003-4 to 2008-9. What he found was that roughly 80% of those schools were still low performing five years later, leading researchers to posit that it might be better to just close those schools from the get go. And if reform is attempted the way in was in Central Falls, he is right.
What lessons do we take from Central Falls? Well, here’s one: Politicians think that schools change by fiat. They think that we can undo mistakes, initiate lasting change, and reform school cultures in no time flat. They think that throwing money at a problem takes care of it. They think that mandating change makes change happen.
They are, of course, wrong. I don’t quibble with the need for reform; in fact, I agree with a lot of reformers’ ideas. But let me say again: Let’s take the time to do it right. Let’s work together, teachers and administrators. Let’s set realistic expectations for change.
What happened at Central Falls is a tragedy – or maybe a travesty.