Even as the city of Central Falls, Rhode Island, has struggled with financial issues and a controversial turnaround of their high school, the Central Falls School District (CFSD) has emerged as a leader in involving community members within their governance structure.
As part of our work with the Nellie Mae Education Foundation on educational governance issues in Rhode Island, Angela Romans – AISR’s co-director of District & Systems Transformation – sat down with CFSD Superintendent Victor Capellan and Board of Trustees Chairwoman Anna Cano Morales to talk about their experiences with community-based educational governance. We’ve included an excerpt from their interview below; read the full interview here. This is the first of a series of three interviews on education governance. For more information, visit our Rhode Island Education Governance Forum publication page.
ANGELA: What should other school districts and cities and communities know about involving parents and youth and other residents in governance issues? And what advice would you offer?
ANNA: Community involvement within governing issues is a core responsibility. I don’t think that you create good policy or sound policy that’s implemented in an equitable way if you don’t involve the people who are actually going to be either benefiting from it or affected by it. So (a) I think it’s just a must; and (b) it’s difficult. You're not always going to be at the same place on issues. There is definitely a learning curve on all sides, and it requires intentional leadership. It requires people to automatically think about the community when there is going to be a planning meeting about X, Y, or Z – not having it be an afterthought, but actually having it be part of the composition from the beginning. I think it can be done. I think it must be done. I think it’s harder, but eventually, you’ll get a much better outcome.
VICTOR: Involving parents and students in governance is challenging. They will challenge you and your positional authority. However, if you really want to look at making long-term systemic changes that will support this community after you as the superintendent have moved on, then it’s necessary. The constant here is the community, and they are the ones that live with the decisions that are made. So some of the initial inconveniences and the initial investments will have been worth it in the long run.
And the other thing is that in many communities, parent and student involvement doesn’t just happen. If you really value it, and you really think it’s important, then you have to make it happen. The work around parents here in Central Falls, it doesn’t necessarily just happen; some of it had to be spurred. Some of it had to be seeded. Some of it had to be pushed along a little bit. But once it takes hold, and once people realize that you are serious about having them be a partner, and that they have access, and that they have some decision-making, they know what’s at stake. And they want to be able to join, to contribute.
I remember, when we first started doing the parent center at the high school, five or six years ago, we had some of the parents that were coming in, and they wanted to go out on walk-throughs with us. And we said, “Fine. Let’s go. Let’s do it.” Then teachers were like, “Why are these parents on these walk-throughs?” Because initially, the teachers thought, “Well, they're here to watch us. And why are they watching us?” Afterwards [teachers] realized, well, it’s their kids we’re talking about. And the parents are not here just to be a pain, or just to whine. They wanted to contribute, and they were looking for ways to really be brought into the conversation. Today at the high school, you have parents volunteering and doing work in a number of different ways. And nobody questions it anymore, “Why are parents here?” It’s more like, “We need more parent involvement. Why aren’t we doing more?”
Initially, building trust is something that doesn’t just happen. You have to really create it and make it happen. Same thing with student voice, same thing with community organizations. Sometimes they will be the ones that challenge you. They will be the ones who demand certain actions or information or whatever. But that’s their job. And you have a job to do on your side.
ANNA: Now it’s part of the culture in Central Falls schools; it’s very normal and very welcoming – people don’t think twice when they see parents in the school, or walking into the school, or involved in any kind of school activities. It’s now the norm. So that is a huge change, in the past six to eight years, that now culturally we expect parents to be part of the school makeup, or of the school staff, as volunteers, and leaders, and as partners.
The other thing is that we used to constantly hear, “The parents don’t care. If it weren’t for the staff and teachers, these students wouldn’t have anyone.” I think that was creating an unhealthy and unsustainable dependency on staff, and we were failing to involve parents and guardians in meaningful ways. I think now we can actually point at it in a different way. We’re actually pointing to evidence every day in every one of our schools where parents are there. They are caring, and they are being active participants in education. It’s a long-term commitment. And as Victor has already stated, it’s got its ups and downs. It has its challenges, and some days are better than others. But, at the end of the day, I think you’ll all agree that we’re a much better district with student involvement and with parent involvement.
Some of our very first parent volunteers, particularly at the high school, were like the first responders. Because at the time, the high school was going through a painful time, and they were the greeters. They would be positioned at the doorways, greeting students, greeting teachers, greeting faculty to the high school. And now some of those parents are employed by our district, and one of them is actually on the school board. I think it’s just a wonderful example of democracy. Parents have risen through the turmoil and have made their contributions to the healing that was so desperately needed at the time. Everyone benefits from that.
For more on parent leadership in the Central Falls School District, see AISR’s recent publications:
The i3 We Are a Village Evaluation (April 2016)
“Fostering Family Engagement through Shared Leadership in the District, Schools, and Community” (by Patricia Martinez and Joshua Wizer-Vecchi, VUE no. 44, 2016)