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.

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Why does community involvement or representation in governance and decision-making matter? Why is it important to you for parents and residents to have a voice in decision-making in education?

1552 Anna Cano MoralesANNA: Particularly in communities of color or communities where the people of color [are] the majority – which is the case in Central Falls, and in Providence, and in other public school districts in our urban core – it makes perfect sense to have community involvement because the communities are the stakeholders. I can't imagine good policy, sound practice, and leadership without community input and community involvement.

VICTOR: The leadership of educational and government institutions can be transient. Superintendents are often in their position for about three years, though I'm hoping mine will be more. The fact is that leadership changes – a mayor may change – and so the constant here is the community, and they are the ones that live with the decisions that are made. So there’s that idea of sustainability, and accountability would be the other side of that coin – having the community hold the people that have been entrusted to work in these communities accountable. For both of those reasons, I think it’s critical that we are transparent in the work, and that we are collaborative with our community in the work.

What would you highlight as some of the examples of community involvement in educational governance and of education decision-making in Central Falls’ work?

ANNA: I would say the board governance structure. When we were given the ability to reconstitute the board, because we’re an appointed school board, we were very intentional to ensure that we had a very diverse school board and trustees. The composition of that school board and trustees – being majority female and majority Latino – really hit almost square in the middle of the DNA of Central Falls.

VICTOR: A number of years ago [former superintendent] Dr. Gallo was very intent on making sure that parents were involved. With the support of an i3 grant, the We Are a Village program, we developed parent centers in all of our schools. We continue to have those parent centers to maintain that community involvement, and that generated creation of the Parent College, which is really a leadership training for parents. So parent involvement and empowerment is one big part of the work, and then the other is our work with the city. We make a very intentional effort to maintain a relationship with the city so that information can flow through the more formal channels that the mayor and the city council may have.

What would you like to see as the next steps in the work in Central Falls around community engagement and community leadership and governance?

ANNA: In the legislation that created the Central Falls School Board of Trustees, I’d like to see different language that allows for there to be a seat or seats that would be given specifically to youth. The state statute that created the board of trustees does specifically stipulate that the majority should be either parents of students in this school system or alums of the school system. But including students who are 16 or 17 or 18 – I think that that would be a game-changer. And I would go even further to ask, how do you operationalize that? I would be willing to give that student credit for it; treat it like an ELO [expanded learning opportunity], treat it like a course, treat it like a civics or political science competency or mastery, and actually have them gain college credit for it. Could it be tied to a political science course, let’s say, at Rhode Island College?

VICTOR: From my end, I’ll add that student voice is the one major thing that we have not really tapped into as much as we can, and we need to. That is a constituency of stakeholders that has so much to offer, and [being involved in governance] can be such a great way for them to get their sea legs, as a training ground for them to become advocates, to have a voice in their education. And I don’t think that we’ve done as much as we can to provide students with a way to begin the process – develop some leaders, show them where the opportunities are, and then let them lead and be their own advocates in many ways.

1553 Victor CapellanAlso, a lot of the community groups in Central Falls are not specifically focused on education advocacy, and we would love to see more of that, because I think there needs to be some outside community influences, not just coming from within the schools. A third of our students go off to charter schools, so what does that look like for families and for the community? Having community groups be more active in determining the long-term plans for education in Central Falls would be great.

ANNA: I would also like to see the school system in Central Falls be much more of a proactive partner in activism in Central Falls. We engage as a partner when there is a crisis – when there is an immigration ban or when there are safety issues, municipal issues. But we’re not necessarily strategically and proactively fueling that activism that I know is there in Central Falls. I’d love to see us be hosts of community organizing or leadership development, really creating a training ground or a training lab that equips those who want to participate – parents, youth, and allies with the schools – with what they need to advocate for education and a good quality of life.

What should other school districts and cities and communities know about involving parents and youth and other residents in governance issues? What are some of the structures that might hinder or support community involvement, based on your experiences? And what advice would you have for others?

ANNA: I think 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 I think eventually, you’ll get a much better outcome.

VICTOR: Districts should know that 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 have moved on, then it’s necessary. Some of the initial inconveniences and the initial investments will have been worth it in the long run.

In some 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. In Central Falls, the work around parents 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 [power] – 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, and some of the parents who were coming in wanted to go out on walk-throughs with us. And we said, “Fine. Let’s go. Let’s do it.” And 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. Now it isn’t, “Why are parents here?” It’s more like, “We need more parent involvement. Why aren’t we doing more?”

So 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. So 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 come. 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.

1580 An excerpt from this interview can be found on our blog. This is the first of a series of three interviews on education governance. For more on AISR's work on educational governance, see our Building a Governance Ecosystem publication page.

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)

Self-Assessment Tools for Districts: Family Leadership and Higher Education Partnerships (July 2015)