The Providence Journal published this editorial “Bleak outlook for R.I. Latinos” on December 2nd, 2017. The editorial can be found here: http://www.providencejournal.com/opinion/20171202/editorial-bleak-outlook-for-ri-latinos We spoke with Stephanie Gonzalez about her perspective on why the for Results Index scores for Latinos in Rhode Island is the lowest in the country.
- You serve on the Central Falls Board of Trustees for the Central Falls School District. Can you tell us about the role of the Board of Trustees in the Central Falls School District?
The Board of Trustees (BOT) is the governing body of the Central Falls School District. Members are appointed by the Commissioner of Education as our school district has been overseen by the Rhode Island Department of Education since 1991.
- What motivated you to want to serve on the Central Falls Board of Trustees?
I was born and raised in Central Falls. I graduated in 2004 from the traditional public school system and realized once I set foot on a college campus that I was significantly underprepared for the rigor of a college education. That experience triggered me to start asking a lot of questions about what was (or wasn’t) happening in my City’s schools and I was determined to demand better for kids in my community. Serving on the BOT gives me a chance to understand how complex it is to create systemic change. I’m an optimist though (a frustrated one at times) but an optimist, nonetheless, and I truly believe that we have an opportunity to radically improve educational outcomes for kids if we act with urgency.
- Can you highlight some of the positive changes you have seen since joining the Board of Trustees, and how the School District has changed since you graduated?
There is so much! I was appointed to the Board in 2011. Just a year earlier, the chances that a Central Falls High School student would graduate within 4 years was 48%. 48%! That is just criminal. Around the same time, Current Superintendent Victor Capellan joined the district as Deputy Superintendent for Transformation at our high school and through very intentional reforms the 4-year district graduation rate rose from 48% to 76%! Implementing multiple pathway programs that allowed the non-traditional student to earn credit after school and on Saturdays allowed students to create a path to graduation that best suited their needs. Furthermore, we also started to celebrate 5-year graduations rates. We did all of this in an attempt to keep at-risk students on track to obtain a diploma instead of a GED…or drop out altogether.
District leadership has also focused on building a college-going culture among our students—one that allows students to believe that they belong on college campuses. CF students really do belong there. We’ve been blessed by Rhode Island College and their willingness to take some risks with us. With the College’s support, the CF/RIC Innovation Lab was born (Shout out to former President Nancy Carrioulo for saying yes to beginning this partnership and Current President Frank Sanchez for saying yes to continuing to strengthen it). This partnership has made it possible for both communities to expose themselves to each other. Our teachers, students, and parents spend time on RIC’s campus. RIC faculty spend time in our classroom—immersed in our community. I have to admit that my absolutely favorite part of this partnership is the Conditional Acceptance Program. For three years, juniors who meet certain GPA and attendance requirements receive a conditional acceptance to RIC! If they continue to meet said requirements through their junior and senior year, they are officially invited to join RIC’s freshman class. This is just another way the district is teaching into a college-going culture.
I’m also amazed by many of our teachers. Many go above and beyond the status quo to ensure our kids are learning and being held to high expectations. One of those teachers is Seth Kolker. He is a math teacher at our high school, but also created an Expanded Learning Opportunity (ELO)—a 1-credit class that takes place after school once a week. The class is called, “How to change the world” and concludes with a trip to Washington D.C. during April break. The group is currently seeking donations via a gofundme to support expenses while in D.C. These are the kinds of learning opportunities that happen only when adults think boldly about the power of experiential learning.
These are just a few of the things I’m proud of, but there are so, so many other things happening in our district that make my heart happy.
- What are the areas of concern you still see and what could be done to address those issues?
Despite all of the positive things happening in our district, we haven’t found a way to create systemic change. Taking my Trustee hat off for a bit, as a resident of Central Falls, I believe it is critical for our student outcomes to improve dramatically. I refuse to accept anything less. Many things concern me as an alum, City resident, and Trustee. Among these concerns are:
- 27% of our students are English Learners (ELs). The district needs the funding and flexibility to ensure that our ELs are supported and pushed academically. Their language barrier isn’t a deficit. It’s an asset. While permanent funding was secured for EL education last year, a rate of 27% requires significantly more resources.
- Condition of our school buildings – Our students deserve school buildings that inspires them to learn – Our high school students have not had access to their school library since the beginning of the year.
- We need to raise expectations for all of our kids in every school building and every classroom. Deficit thinking in our community leads to lowered expectations in the classroom.
- Our district needs increased funding and the ability to spend money differently in order to invest in meaningful teacher professional development, coaching, and other supports for our educators. Learning and growing shouldn’t stop for teachers the moment they step foot in a classroom.
The list goes on for me, but I’ll echo a comment Superintendent Capellan has repeated in the last week or so since the Race for Results report was released: “We have 4800 school-aged kids in our City. It is our responsibility to provide each one with a high-quality education”
I agree. Some of those families choose charters. Others choose our district schools. It’s easy to get caught up in the arguments about money when it comes to public school choice, but I watch how affluent (mostly white) families in RI access choice every day. Their purchasing power allows them to move to places like East Greenwich, Barrington, Lincoln, or the Summit Neighborhood in Providence. Or if they live in Oak Hill in Pawtucket, but refuse to send their kids to Shea High School, their income generating capacity allows them to pay for private school tuition. That is the ultimate exercise of school choice. And I’m not hating on that choice. I’m just saying that my community deserves great choices, too. I want families who can only afford to live in CF or choose to live in CF to feel confident sending their child to any school serving CF children. That said, I don’t believe that charters are going to solve our problems and as I think about the future of our district, I envision a future that involves a robust collaboration with charter schools, not a future where charters supplant our district. We should be able to change systems without having to call it a charter school. Are our stakeholders ready to push for those systemic changes? They better be. We better be.
As I mentioned earlier, I’m an optimist and believe we can get there. We just have to do things radically different. We can’t provide a high-quality education within the current system. It hasn’t been working for a while. This requires dramatic action by RIDE, the BOT, teachers, parents, students, and other stakeholders. Yes, I’m calling everybody out, including myself. We must do better. I must do better. Our students are not failures (they are so far from that…they are #warriors), but our lack of urgent action makes us complicit in preserving a system that lets them down.
- The Editorial focused a lot of education, but it also mentions “avoiding having children until married and 21.” Do you see that as an area Board of Trustees and School District can address?
Absolutely. There are factors outside of the classroom that also impact our students and families. Teen pregnancy is certainly one of them. While the rate of teen pregnancy has decreased, Central Falls continues to have the highest teen birth rate per 1,000 births in the state. According to RI Kids Count 2017 Factbook, between 2011 and 2015, Central Falls’ birth rate was 64.7 per 1,000 (236 births ages 15-19). The district has partnered with Brown University Medical Students and Doctor Susanna Magee which gave our middle school students the opportunity to spend time with medical students and learn about sex education.
Nowell Leadership Academy—a public charter school serving pregnant, parenting, and at-risk youth—deserves credit for the work they do to ensure we are able to intentionally and flexibly serve students who become teen parents.
- What role do you see for reproductive health care in increasing opportunities for the children of Central Falls?
I think we need to demystify what “reproductive health care” means in the Latino community. Growing up it was taboo for me to even think about birth control. My mother insisted on being with me during my annual primary care visit. She also assumed I couldn’t possibly be sexually active before marriage so she’d say things like, “Oh you don’t have to see a gynecologist yet.” We need to break that trend and find ways to have conversations with our families that revolve around health outcomes and the longitudinal impact that those outcomes have on our young people and our city. One of the gems that we have in Central Falls is the neighborhood health station—a clinical enterprise that aims to serve up to 90% of all CF residents. While the health station is currently up and running, the city broke ground on a project that will be completed later this year and further enhance the impact of the health station in Central Falls. I see the health station as a potential key component in starting to better educate our community about reproductive healthcare, especially among our youth. Read more about the station here: http://www.bvchc.org/about-us/cf-neighbor-hood-health-station
The views of this interviewee may not be the same views held by network members of The Woman Project.