The No. 1 movie in the country the week that the state of Rhode Island took control of Central Falls schools was “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles II: The Secret of the Ooze,” and somehow the idea of four oversized talking reptiles conquering supervillain Shredder has proven to be more realistic than turning around the tiny school district.
Thirty-two years and six governors later, the state is still in charge of Central Falls, and the result has been a school district in worse condition than Providence, the other district that the Rhode Island Department of Education has overseen since 2019.
But there’s movement afoot for a shakeup in Central Falls, albeit a tepidly paced one.
Governor Dan McKee signaled support earlier this year for finally returning the district to local control, and Mayor Maria Rivera has hired one of the state’s brightest educational minds to begin planning what that transition might look like.
The question now is when Central Falls could get its school system back (Spoiler: we’re talking years, not months) and whether state and city leaders can set aside egos to ensure that any changes have the best interests of students in mind.
“I want to bring everyone to the table,” Rivera, who graduated from Central Falls High School in 1995, told me last week when I visited her in City Hall. “You have a mayor who cares, you have a mayor who is invested. What better time to do this?”
In August, Rivera hired Sarah Friedman, the co-founder of The Learning Community Charter School in Central Falls who just wrapped up a doctoral program at Harvard, as chief of education strategy. Friedman is one of the rare people in education in Rhode Island who has broad support among both charter school leaders and in traditional public school circles.
Friedman will spend the next year or so reviewing every facet of Central Falls schools, listening to teachers, families, advocates, and experts to come up with a plan for returning the school district to the city to run.
“This is an opportunity to build something together that can endure and serve this community after we’re all gone,” Friedman said.
Rivera and Friedman said they are deliberately moving slowly, and they don’t expect to win control of the school district before the 2025-2026 school year. Rivera, a Democrat, said she would like it to happen before she leaves office in 2028 (assuming she wins reelection next year), but she acknowledged that the biggest question will be how the city will be able to afford to run the school system.
“I don’t want to put a timeline on it,” Rivera said. “My biggest concern is what the budget is going to look like. I need to make sure sure this is going to work for everyone.”
The state initially took control of the district in 1991 because the city was threatening to close schools during the school year because it didn’t have the money to pay teachers. The state has covered almost the entire budget for the district – $60 million in the current fiscal year – ever since.
But the takeover stretches far beyond just finances. The education commissioner appoints members of the Central Falls School Board of Trustees, and those members are confirmed by the state Council on Elementary and Secondary Education. The board oversees policy decisions (like curriculum) and the appointment of the superintendent, but members are always looking over their shoulder at the state.
Rivera was given some input on those appointees this year, but the final decision still comes from state officials.
Whatever the state has been doing for three decades, it hasn’t been working in a district where 82 percent of the kids are considered economically disadvantaged and 44 percent are multilingual learners.
- The district’s four-year high school graduation rate was just 65 percent during the 2021-2022 school year, according to the Rhode Island Department of Education.
- Only 4 percent of students were considered proficient in math and 6 percent were proficient in English Language Arts that year.
- More than 42 percent of students and 28 percent of teachers were considered chronically absent, meaning they missed at least 18 days of school.
By comparison, Providence, which was taken over by the state in 2019 because of poor results, had a 77 percent graduation rate in 2021-2022, and its proficiency rates are twice as high as Central Falls. Providence’s student absenteeism rate was higher, but its teacher absenteeism rate significantly lower.
For his part, McKee has been keeping close tabs on Central Falls schools since becoming governor. During his State of the State address in January, he kicked off speculation that he might end the Central Falls takeover when he said, “The state has intervened in two local school districts. One for too long and one for not long enough to get the job done.”
The news website GoLocalProv followed up by citing multiple members of the McKee administration who claimed, anonymously, that the governor planned to give the schools back to Central Falls.
Then nothing happened.
When I asked the Rhode Island Department of Education about Rivera’s decision to hire Friedman, spokesman Victor Morente pumped the brakes on any potential transition, pointing out that any changes would require legislative approval.
It’s unclear if the governor’s office or the Department of Education supported Central Falls’ decision to hire Friedman, but other corners of state government are backing the move. House Speaker Joe Shekarchi, Senate President Dominick Ruggerio, Secretary of State Gregg Amore, and Senate Education Committee Chairwoman Sandra Cano all released statements praising the decision to begin planning the transition.
Notably, none of them expressed explicit support for returning the district to local control.
“Mayor Rivera is putting her community first by bringing in one of the region’s most exceptional education experts, getting everyone to the table, and trying to figure out collaboratively what’s best for the schools,” Amore, a former East Providence school administrator, said.
Admittedly, this whole planning-on-planning-on-planning concept would ordinarily be destined to become a long report that no one really reads, and it’s entirely possible that Central Falls schools will remain under state control in perpetuity.
But Rivera has a knack for bringing people together – you won’t find anyone who doesn’t like her personally – and Friedman, who could be a superintendent in any state in the country, wouldn’t have taken the job if she didn’t think there was light at the end of the tunnel.
Flash forward to the start of the 2025 school year, when a brand new Central Falls High School is scheduled to open. What a perfect time to cut the ribbon on a new school, and hand the keys to the district back to the mayor.