After Radical Change, R.I. School Shows Signs Of Improvement

fromRIPR

In 2010, Central Falls made headlines for firing every high school teacher. The firings were part of a federal program promising big changes at the nation's worst schools. Four years later, there are signs the program is helping, but there are also questions about whether the improvement will last.

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Rhode Island's Central Falls High School made headlines in 2010 for a pretty dramatic reason: The school board fired all of its teachers as part of a draconian plan to turn around a school experiencing serious problems. The teachers were later rehired, and now, four years later, a series of reforms at Central Falls High appear to be helping. Elisabeth Harrison from Rhode Island Public Radio has the story.

ELISABETH HARRISON, BYLINE: Central Falls, Rhode Island is a gritty, former mill town with many immigrants and families struggling to get by. Its high school has long been known as one of the worst in the state. Eighteen-year-old Byron Perez says the mass firing and rehiring of teachers made it worse.

BYRON PEREZ: Things are kind of crazy. When we got dismissed at three, everything was just hectic - classes, everything.

HARRISON: Perez was a freshman back then, and remembers days when teachers didn't show up for class and fights broke out in the hallways. Today, the hallways are noisy, but students are smiling as they make their way to their classrooms.

JUSTIN DRAW: All right. Here we go. All aboard.

HARRISON: Some ninth graders take their time sitting down at their desks, so teacher Justin Draw tells them to settle down.

DRAW: Hey, folks. Books out, please. Hey, phones away, Books out.

HARRISON: Draw moves from classroom to classroom, helping teachers work with students who have special needs. His job is just one example of the changes Central Falls is making, and it seems to be helping. The school has overhauled curriculum and added special programs to get dropouts back. The graduation rate is up from a dismal 52 percent to 70 percent. Senior Byron Perez says things are a lot different after the chaos of his freshman year.

PEREZ: Now that everything's settled. Everything's all good. It's, like, everything's back in control. It's, like, it's kind of a relief.

HARRISON: A relief for Perez and for teachers. About half of the original faculty remains at the school. Principal Joshua LaPlante is a former biology teacher.

JOSHUA LAPLANTE: So, for however many years, we've been a low-achieving, non-improving school. And we can refer to the times where we all felt very comfortable, because when I started here we were all very comfortable, but our students were not making any gains.

HARRISON: Long-time English teacher Richard Kinslow says he wants to see students make gains, but he sees the firings as a setback. Teachers have struggled to regain morale, and Kinslow says there are still problems with discipline.

RICHARD KINSLOW: 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 eff you up, you know, that kind of stuff.

HARRISON: School administrators say they're working on discipline and giving students a better education. Take math, for example. Test scores nearly doubled last year, but they're still among the lowest in Rhode Island. And Central Falls no longer has extra federal funding for its turnaround effort. Maria Ferguson from the Center for Education Policy says high schools face a special challenge, because students have personal issues.

MARIA FERGUSON: 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 it is not easy.

HARRISON: Teachers agree: It's not easy. But at least the test scores at Central Falls High are heading in the right direction. The question now is whether the improvement will continue as the district faces cuts in both state and federal funding. For NPR News, I'm Elisabeth Harrison, in Providence, Rhode Island.

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