The Latino Experience in Central Falls

A complex tangle of factors, especially strong union resistance, works against improvement in student learning at a troubled high school, according to one close observer by WILLIAM R. HOLLAND

It was fall 2009 when 30 suburban Pennsylvania superintendents went on a site visit to Central Falls High School in Rhode Island to study leadership and its effect on raising student achievement. It was a few months before the school would receive a notification from the U.S. secretary of education and the Rhode Island commissioner of education about being in the lowest 5 percent of the "persistently lowest-performing schools" in the state, meaning the school would be forced to accept one of four mandated reform options.

William HollandWilliam Holland served as interim superintendent in Central Falls, R.I., and recently wrote a book about the academic failures at the district’s high school.

One of those options called for all administrators and teachers to be terminated with the possibility of rehiring up to 50 percent of them in a reconstituted school. The failure of the superintendent, board and the local chapter of the American Federation of Teachers to agree on a less severe transformation option (teachers wanted more money for increased time) resulted in the mass firing of all teachers and staff, an action that was rescinded later in the year. The mass firing was publicly endorsed by President Obama and Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, who called it a "last resort."

The ugly protests and demonstrations that followed thrust the high school into the media spotlight as the national poster child for failing inner-city schools attended by low-income minority students.

An Eye-Opener
At the time of the Pennsylvanians' visit, Central Falls High School seemed on the surface to be running smoothly. The superintendents spent the day talking with administrators, teachers and students and conducting classroom observations. They were familiar with the school's demographic profiles, academic shortcomings and recent history, which included a pair of teenage shootings that prompted the mayor to institute a curfew throughout the one-square-mile city of 20,000 residents.

The suburban school leaders were not oblivious to the challenges of teaching and learning in inner-city schools. In their own districts, many enroll a small percentage of low-achieving white and minority students who eventually drop out, have minimal parental support or have personal issues that interfere with their learning. But what would be their reaction to visiting a so-called urban "dropout factory" where fewer than 50 percent of the students graduated?

It was truly an eye-opening experience, especially when they discovered the school was not a threatening place where violence could strike at any moment. It fact, it was a warm, friendly place with courteous students, about two-thirds of the student body being from Latino families.

"I expected the worse, and it was not nearly as bad as the data would suggest," one of the superintendents said. "The kids were wonderful. They were polite and well-behaved in all classrooms. They are delightful and very positive and appear happy in their environment," said another.

The Central Falls superintendent and principal also earned plaudits based on the one-day visit. "Both administrators have a solid plan of action with logical, sequential steps to get there," one superintendent reported. "It will be a steep climb, however."

The only mixed feedback concerned the faculty. Comments included: "More teachers need to be schooled in best-practice strategies"; "I was impressed with students and administrators, but not nearly as impressed with the faculty aside from a couple of teachers I met."

Blame Game
What, then, is causing low-income Latino students to fall behind their white counterparts, with shockingly low graduation, poor literacy and low college-preparedness rates?

Rhode Island Kids Count reported a graduation rate for Central Falls of 47 percent in 2009 compared to a statewide average of 75 percent.

As the Latino population in Central Falls and elsewhere has increased dramatically, we need better explanations for this major gap. What's causing this cycle of failure, this inability to raise the achievement level of Latino students? Nationally, one in five Latino teens drops out of high school, twice the rate for black students and more than three times the rate of white students. Who or what is to blame?

In completing research for my book on Central Falls High School, I looked for the answers to the blame question. It is a complex question and not subject to a few generalizations.

School cultures vary greatly, and it is senseless and unfair to conclude one factor is at the heart of this school's failure. Individual schools are broken for different reasons; to turn them around calls for strategies that depend on the local circumstances. Multiple factors are at play and have to be addressed simultaneously. One-size-fits-all solutions arenít the answer.

Because of the complexity of analyzing factors that contribute to low student achievement at Central Falls, I found it best to classify them under three overriding obstacles -- poverty, cultural differences, and the quality of teaching and leadership.

Poverty Effects
Central Falls is, by far, the poorest community in Rhode Island. More than 40 percent of the children under 18 live in poverty, and 40 percent of that group live in severe poverty. Unemployment in the city has hovered around 17 percent, and the median income around $25,000. Eighty percent of the students are eligible for subsidized lunch, and 48 percent live with a single parent. Sixty-one percent of teenage girls (ages 15 to 17) have children of their own, compared to 19 percent statewide. The city is so poor the state has fully funded the school's operating budget since 1991 and last spring placed the city in state receivership.

Unquestionably, the empirical evidence shows a near-perfect linear relationship between a high school's poverty level and its tendency to lose large numbers of low-income minority students between 9th and 12th grades, especially when they attend segregated, inner-city schools.

Poverty impedes the school district's initiatives in closing the achievement gap between Latinos and whites. Health problems, poor school attendance, high family mobility, housing displacement, unemployment, crime and domestic violence are some issues associated with low educational attainment of Latino students.

Many Latinos live in inner cities in affordable housing with relatives or friends. According to UCLA's 2009 civil rights report, Latinos are more segregated than black children in the 1960s when Martin Luther King Jr. underscored the powerful relationship between segregation and student dropout rates.

Poverty directly contributes to increased residential instability. In Central Falls, with a mobility rate around 30 percent, families are in flight during childrenís critical educational years.

During this period of recession and high unemployment, the problem has worsened. When I served as interim superintendent in Central Falls, I tracked the transfers in and out over the 2006-07 school year. One-third of the high school student body turned over. There were 1,000 transfers in a district of 3,800 students. High school attendance under the state formula at that time was only 65 percent.

Many of the transfer students had attended five or six different schools in other places during their first eight years of schooling. The achievement scores of those students who attended Central Falls schools for their complete school experience indicated that they outperformed the students who had transferred into the district.
Contributing to this discrepancy was a significant number of families who moved into the city and had children with special needs. The fine reputation of the special education program was a magnet. Interestingly, one-quarter of the high school's enrollment was receiving special education services.

The dynamic of high mobility significantly contributes to low student performance and must be considered before holding the educational professionals largely accountable for low test scores.

Cultural Differences
A study by the Inter-American Development Bank reported that only one-third of Latin American parents managed to obtain a secondary school education before migrating to the United States. In Rhode Island, data collected by Kids Count indicate that parental education attainment of mothers in Central Falls is significantly lower than in other communities, a condition correlated with low educational achievement of their children.

Another factor is that the primary language in two-thirds of Central Falls families is something other than English. The language barrier is well-documented by research as an obstacle to learning that schools must overcome.

High parental expectations and engagement in their child's education is not as highly valued by Latino parents as it should be -- and their children know it. It is not that Latino parents don't want their students to succeed and have bright futures. For various reasons, they are not making the personal investment thatís required. Aspirations and expectations for their children are too low.

Parents for United Responsible Education, a Chicago-based parent advocacy group, recently issued a report on other factors that contribute to low school achievement by Latinos. In part, it said: "Children are tired [and] they need someone to help them with their homework. Some kids face violence at home or in their neighborhood. Some parents are trying so hard to keep a roof over their family that they canít help with their child."

One distinct difference exists between Latinos in Central Falls and those in other places -- the wider diversity of its inhabitants. Unlike other Latino populations, Central Falls has no dominant ethnic makeup. Instead, it is a rich cultural mix. Latino families have migrated to the area from Portugal and practically every country in Central and South America. As the Providence Journal reported, when you walk down the main streets of Central Falls, you will notice a bustle of activity with people speaking Spanish, Creole, Portuguese or English.

Such diversity is indeed a strength and something to be valued. On the other hand, it increases the challenges faced by educators in addressing the cultural differences and academic needs among the diverse mix.

Because of the city's widespread poverty, there is no middle class to speak of. When Central Falls families reach a certain level of prosperity, they move to the suburbs as other poor Latino families move into the city to take their places. Recently, many of the tenement buildings that families rent from absentee landlords have been boarded up due to foreclosures, creating serious housing problems for Latino families. This situation feeds segregation, and the obstacles to learning it represents. It's a critical situation that needs to be addressed by the state leadership now.

Quality of Teaching and Leadership
Principals and assistant principals don't last long at Central Falls High. Without tenure and union protection, they are especially vulnerable. Yes, some may have lacked needed leadership skills, though as one pro-administration teacher said, "Twenty-three different high school administrators have left in the last seven years. That isn't a coincidence -- the union has to accept a large degree of the blame."

The powerful local teachers union, armed with an ironclad contract and a rarefied sense of entitlement, had a history of challenging every administrative decision. The union essentially ran the school. Teachers got most of what they wanted, with teacher evaluation being a rare and inconsistent occurrence.

After the appointment of a student-focused superintendent and new Latino board chair and board members, the Rhode Island Department of Education classified the high school as "chronically low-performing" and placed it under a correction plan. Although incremental improvements were realized under the plan, overall student achievement remained too low and the dropout rate too high.

When the school district adopted the federal governmentís turnaround option, the teachers union found itself pushing against a tidal wave of change as new authority swung to the superintendent and board. When the high school staff was fired, attention turned quickly to Central Falls' teachers and how much they were contributing to low student performance and the dropout problem. What exactly was going on in their classrooms?

A glimpse into the quality of teaching was revealed during an instructional audit conducted in 2007 by a group of 32 highly qualified and successful Rhode Island urban teachers and administrators along with state education department instructional specialists. The team logged a total of 128 hours of classroom observations over three days and talked extensively with students and staff. The focus was on English, math, special education and English as a second language programs.

The final report was hard-hitting and upsetting to the teachers union leadership. Specific details from the report can be found in my book, however the general conclusions were that the majority of students did not read or write well and few produced high-quality writing. Although a few students understood and applied math well, most students were not proficient in the subject.

Similar to what the Pennsylvania superintendents noted during their site visit three years later, some excellent teachers were observed. The most compelling statement in the report was directed at those caring teachers who for years had provided emotional support to their students. It read, in part: "A culture based primarily on caring is not enough. Where such a culture dominates, neither teachers nor students are challenged to improve nor are they held to high expectations. Such is the case in Central Falls High School."

During the mass-firing controversy, the union claimed teachers were being singled out as the principal cause of student failure. The union pointed to the challenges teachers face in urban classrooms where so many 9th graders come to them with 4th- and 5th-grade reading levels. The union pointed to poverty and the life challenges students face outside of the school walls.

They bristled at the criticism leveled at them, calling it unfair teacher bashing and publicly took issue with statements by national reform experts -- notably a comment from Doug Reeves of The Leadership and Learning Center, who said, "Poverty and other socioeconomic factors influence student achievement, but specific teaching and leadership practices are even more influential."

A United Front
Teachers, principals, superintendents, board members, students and parents are part of the problem and must be part of the solution. They must be open to change, questioning the status quo and doing what it takes for students to learn. The union leadership needs to engage in a spirit of cooperation and not retrenchment, especially in a persistently underperforming school.

Without teacher commitment and support joined with trusted and competent leadership, nothing will change. The problems have to be solved locally, not by a federal mandate that created a state of chaos, lingering teacher bitterness and a media frenzy. It will be difficult enough in this economy to secure the financial resources needed for school reform. The current fighting has to stop and a "kids first" attitude must be adopted by all parties if a united front and a shared vision are to be realized.

William Holland, former interim superintendent in Central Falls, R.I., is professor emeritus of educational leadership at Rhode Island College and author of A School in Trouble: A Personal Story of Central Falls High School. E-mail: wrholland3@verizon.net