Math scores have improved.
Students say teachers treat them with respect and inspire them to do their best work.
Teachers say their voices are heard and their input respected.
And parents are a daily presence in the hallways.
Still, discipline and student absenteeism continue to bedevil academic progress. And student performance is still alarmingly low, with only 13 percent of 11th graders reaching proficiency in math.
Four years ago, when teachers were demoralized after a mass firing, it would have been hard to imagine that the state Supreme Court would hear arguments in the school’s auditorium. But that’s what happened last week.
“You could have heard a pin drop,” says Anna Cano Morales, chairwoman of the Central Falls Board of Trustees. “The level of engagement was intense. Is this the unruly Central Falls High School? Is this the district that some write off as a lost cause?”
Three years ago, the high school established several goals: increase the graduation rate, decrease the dropout rate boost student achievement in math and transform the school’s toxic climate.
A new report by Brown University’s Annenberg Institute for School Reform chronicles the numerous improvements since then.
One of the most remarkable turnarounds has been the dramatic change in school climate. During a recent visit, hallways were quiet, classes seemed focused and parents feel a new sense of collaboration in a school once torn apart by distrust.
“When we first came into the school, the teachers thought we were spies,” said Therese McMaugh, a parent of two high school students. “Now, teachers want us to be here. They’re not afraid to ask for help.”
Parents have been trained to be leaders. And, in a community where some families were afraid to even enter a school building, they now help out in the front office, serve as translators and make phone calls to families whose children have skipped school. A parent leadership team meets monthly with Supt. Frances Gallo.
Principal Joshua Laplante, assistant principal Roy Silvia and deputy superintendent Victor Capellan, who has an office at the high school, have led the change.
Teacher absences have declined from 1,470 days in 2010-11 to 676 days last year, largely, school leaders say, the result of an improved school climate.
“The healing process has happened,” said David Upegui, a biology teacher. “You see it in the teachers. We were asked to come in on a Sunday. Over half the staff showed up. That shows the commitment we have.”
Student attendance, however, continues to be a problem. Chronic absenteeism has actually increased since the 2009-2010 school year. Nearly one of two students at the high school is chronically absent, substantially higher than the state average of 17 percent.
Laplante says the high school has developed an attendance campaign, publicizing it on Spanish-language radio stations and reaching out to local churches.
For the first time, the school is sending letters home informing parents of the number of absences. And it is tracking absences more carefully.
On a positive note, both the graduation and dropout rates have improved, largely because the school now offers students alternative routes to make up credits.
In 2010-2011, the graduation rate improved by 19 percentage points. In one year, the dropout rate decreased by 27 percentage points and last year, it was 14 percent, only two points higher than the state average.
Janazhia Matos, 19, credits a special program for teen parents with her decision to finish high school.
“It’s like a college schedule,” she said. “I only come to school on the days I need to take math and science.”
Another program, called Square Mile, caters to special-needs students, focusing on problem behavior.
The school also offers Saturday and evening classes. It even offers a morning fitness program where students can make up physical education credits.
More than 10 percent of the school’s 840 students are enrolled in some type of alternative high school.
“We offer kids a life saver,” says Gallo. “We tell them, ‘There is no way for you to drop out.’ All we need from them is determination.”
Students have also been given a voice. There are 45 student leaders this year — up from 18 last year — running programs, partnering with adults and sponsoring activities.
They have a voice in what they want to see in the school and how they can contribute to making it happen, one student told the Brown researchers.
Student leaders agree that the high school has undergone a profound change.
“My freshman year was very chaotic,” says Alexandra Belleton, a senior. “There was little discipline. We had two different principals. Teachers were leaving. Sophomore year, everything changed.”
“It does feel happier,” says Abigail Reyes, a senior. “When I was a freshman, I had one substitute teacher after another. Now we have committed teachers who are willing to stay with us after school.”
But behavior problems continue, according to the report. The “restorative justice” model, which emphasizes understanding the cause of the behavior rather than simply imposing punishment, isn’t wholly effective, reported teachers, who said they are frustrated with the lack of consequences for poor student behavior.
Principal Laplante cautioned that this is the first year that “restorative justice” has been fully implemented. He also said that if students are really disruptive, the school removes them from the classroom immediately.
Now, Upegui says, it’s time to celebrate the school’s successes.
“Last year, our first graduate was accepted at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology,” he says. “How do I get a bunch of these kids moving forward? How do I make this a habit here? What we are doing here is nothing short of revolutionary.”