Everyone thinks they know the Central Falls story. High drama. Teacher firings. President Obama’s comments. What most people don’t know is that underneath the drama around creating the right conditions, there was a coherent academic plan. And after just one year of transformation, Central Falls High School raised its four-year graduation rate from 54% to 71% and is seeing other early signs of sustained improvement.
Today, Victor Capellan, the Central Falls Deputy Superintendent of Transformation, is guest blogging for STG. Victor oversees the day-to-day transformation initiatives in Central Falls, RI, and has been at the helm of turning around Central Falls High School. Read on for the real Central Falls story. (Disclaimer: Mass Insight has worked with the Central Falls leadership team supporting the turnaround strategy for the past two years.)
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By Victor Capellan
There has been much debate about what it takes—both in money and people—to truly turn around a school. Here’s how we used our transformation dollars to support our school reform plan and invest in our teachers and staff.
Designated as a “Persistently Low Achieving” school, we received a three-year School Improvement Grant of a little over a million dollars a year for three years. After an extensive and inclusive planning process, we focused on three core strategies and invested in a handful of key priorities:
- Extend the school day by 30 minutes. In addition to adding time to the day, we also revamped the daily schedule so that students receive more instruction in core content areas.
- Design a new teacher evaluation and professional development system. Teachers work collaboratively across grades and content areas to analyze student data and plan instruction. A new Teacher Leader Team has distributed instructional leadership across departments and grades.
- Develop the multiple pathways. We created multiple opportunities for our diverse students, including a PM school, a Saturday school, and a program specifically for older, under-credited students. We also worked with local partners to offer internships, long-term research, and hands-on learning experiences in the community.
- Upgrade our school’s technology systems. We brought in new resources and helped teachers integrate technology into everyday learning.
- Hire staff dedicated to the transformation. The new Director for the Center for Family Support and Student Development has helped to create robust opportunities for parent involvement and has been instrumental in fostering community partnerships.
Building Capacity for Sustainable Change
With each transformation strategy, we paid close attention to building capacity across the school. We have been careful not to invest too much in improvements that cannot be sustained past the three-year grant. For example, we have implemented professional development systems that have distributed leadership across the faculty to ensure that we are building expertise in-house once the consultants have gone home. For many of the other programs, after an initial start-up cost, the sustaining costs have been integrated into our day-to-day operations. Of course, certain elements of transformation, such as extended time and additional professional development, depend on contract negotiations. Sustaining and expanding successful initiatives will be a priority as we transition out of transformation in 2013.
While it’s still early, we are learning what it takes to create lasting, sustainable change. The results have been promising. Our 2011 four-year graduation rate was up 17 points to 71%. Our 2011 dropout rate was 9%, down from 34% in 2010. Our ninth graders have maintained a 92% average attendance this year. Discipline referrals have decreased by nearly 50% over last year. And the number of students participating in AP courses has increased by nearly 60%. Next step—more dramatic increases in state test scores.
It has not always been easy. We have had to work collaboratively and make tough decisions. As a school, we had to break traditional behaviors and attitudes to build innovative and creative programs that meet the needs of our students. We are encouraged by the progress we have made, and we know the work continues.