For several years we’ve been following the struggling Central Falls School district.
The high school grabbed national headlines when it fired all of its teachers back in 2010.
The fired teachers were later rehired by the district, but the firings left Central Falls High School in an uproar.
Three years later, Rhode Island Public Radio's Education reporter Elisabeth Harrison found signs of progress at the school, but scars from the mass firings remain.
18-year-old Byron Perez is a senior this year at Central Falls High School, and he remembers when teachers were fired en masse before the start of his freshman year.
“Things were kinda crazy, we got dismissed at three everything was just hectic," Perez said. "Classes, everything."
It was bad for the teachers too. English teacher Richard Kinslow remembers it as the worst experience of his career after nearly two decades in Central Falls.
“I felt like my reputation was sullied," said Kinslow. "I was trounced in the press, by people in the district who should have been supporting teachers. We were fired in the most publicly humiliating way, we were all rehired. It was just insane.”
Students like Perez remember days when teachers didn’t show up for classes, and fights became common in school hallways. But as he leans against a low stone wall outside the school, Perez says things are a lot calmer today.
“Now everything’s settled, everything’s all good. Its just like everything’s back in control," said Perez. "Its like, its kind of a relief.”
And Central Falls students have started to make gains. They’ve raised the graduation rate from a dismal 52 percent to 70 percent. Math scores nearly doubled in the last year, and fewer teachers are calling in sick. Principal Joshua LaPlante, a former biology teacher, says he believes the faculty is finally on the same page, working together to improve the school.
“So, for however many years we’ve been a low achieving, non-improving school," LaPlante said. "And we can refer to the times when we all felt very comfortable, because when I started here we were all very comfortable, but our students were not making any gains.”
LaPlante is the first to admit Central Falls High has a long way to. Even with the increase in math scores, only a small percentage of students are considered proficient, and that’s not unusual, according to Maria Fergusen from the Center for Education Policy. Fergusen has been watching turnaround efforts around the country, and she says improving test scores at the high school level is complicated. You have to factor in students' personal problems, which often distract them from schoolwork.
“And then on top of that you layer the complexity of trying to teach math to a lot of kids who probably don’t have those skills at the early level that really will support math instruction in high school, and, you know, it is not easy,” said Fergusen.
And after three years, the federal funding for Central Falls turnaround effort has run out. That means the school no longer gets a yearly 1.3 million boost in federal funding to help turn the school around. School officials have already rolled back a longer school day because it proved too expensive.
These days, the hallways in Central Falls High School are noisy as Kinslow ushers 9th graders into his English class, but most students appear well behaved. Still, Kinslow says discipline is a challenge.
“Teachers are swore at all the time. They’re told to shut up. Two have been threatened that I know of this year. I’ll f-you up, that kind of stuff,” Kinslow said.
The school understands there are still problems, and administrators say they’re working on it. About half of the original faculty from before the firings remain at Central Falls High, according to the district.
A survey conducted by the Education Alliance at Brown University found that in the last year, teacher’s attitudes have become more positive. However, the same study found that student absenteeism continues to be a challenge for the school.
So three years after a mass firing and a complete school overhaul, test scores are improving at Central Falls High and so is teacher morale, but significant challenges remain. School officials say they’re committed to staying the course on their high school turnaround. They’re hoping partnerships with local businesses, non profits and Rhode Island College will help move the school forward even without extra financial help from the federal government.
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