CENTRAL FALLS – Eight years after filing for bankruptcy, the tiniest city in Rhode Island should be celebrating a milestone this week: It now has 3,000 students enrolled in the public school system, its largest number in more than a decade.
But even as school officials say they are pleased to see more families moving to the city and students attending public schools, there’s one problem.
The $42 million school budget in Central Falls was built on the idea that 2,648 students would be registered between pre-kindergarten and 12th grade, a projection that is based on enrollment figures from March 2018. Instead the city saw a 13 percent jump in students when the school year started, leaving the district bursting at the seams, with some classes swelling to as many as 40 students.
Now city leaders say the state, which has overseen the school department for nearly three decades, needs to step up to support more than 300 newcomers to the district.
“In some places, 300 students is equivalent to an entire school,” said Stephanie Gonzalez, who chairs the Central Falls School Board of Trustees. “It means classroom overages across every grade span. This is ultimately detrimental to teaching and learning, but also has an impact on our budget because teachers are compensated for taking in students beyond the number specified in their contract.”
Central Falls is home to six schools – four elementary, one middle and one high school – that were built to serve up to 3,200 students. But its enrollment has largely remained around 2,600 students over the last five years. Because school funding is largely built on the number of students a district serves, its funding has reflected its size.
The district, whose students overwhelmingly come from low-income families, has been controlled by the state since the early 1990s, part of an effort to stabilize the cash-strapped city’s finances. Even without having to oversee its schools, the city filed for bankruptcy in 2011 and has been focused on recovery ever since.
District officials have long argued that Central Falls is already at a disadvantage because nearly 30 percent of its students are considered English learners and the state only recently started providing extra funding for that population. Nearly all of the district’s students are considered low-income.
Student outcomes reflect those challenges. Central Falls is the lowest-performing district in the state, with only 12 percent of students grades three through eight considered to be proficient in English and eight percent doing math at grade level, according to results on the Rhode Island Comprehensive Assessment System.
But Gonzalez and interim Superintendent Stephanie Downey Toledo say the way the existing funding formula is calculated makes their job even more difficult. Because this year’s budget is set so far in advance and based off enrollment numbers from last spring, there is little wiggle room to account for the increase in students.
“While we are thrilled to know we are growing and have the opportunity to educate more kids, there are many challenges because of the current funding process,” Downey Toledo said.
She said city leaders are asking the state adopt quarterly budget adjustments, “which could go in both directions, so that when a district is educating more kids that we would have the resources to provide an appropriate education.”
Ken Wong, a Brown University professor who is considered the state’s foremost expert on school funding, said Central Falls faces a “very, very tough” situation because many of the new students are coming from high-need populations that would normally qualify the community for additional funding
Practically speaking, Wong said education budgets aren’t nimble enough to adjust for sharp shifts in student totals. In other sectors, companies have more flexibility when it comes to hiring and firing employees, for example.
“It creates education gaps because districts may have to scramble to make sure they have enough teachers to teach the additional children,” Wong said. “It raises a number of educational quality questions.”
So where are the newest students coming from?
It’s not easy to pinpoint, but Gonzalez said many of them are immigrants. Public school districts are required to serve all students who walk through the doors, so the district doesn’t ask whether children are in the country legally or illegally. More than 60 percent of students in the district identify as Latino.
The city historically had a very transient population, and it’s not uncommon for students to move between urban communities like Central Falls, Providence and Pawtucket during the school year.
State officials say they’re reviewing ways to address shifts in student enrollment.
Senator Ryan Pearson, a Cumberland Democrat who is leading a task force that is studying the state funding formula, said Central Falls isn’t the only community that has seen a large increase in this year. Newport added 120 new English learners between September and November.
Pearson called student population changes a “key issue” his task force plans to address when it releases its final report early next year.
“In the coming weeks, the task force will work on a series of both short-term and long-term solutions,” Pearson said. “Making sure that state and local share of funding reflects actual student enrollment is a key area needing a short term solution.”
In the meantime, the Rhode Island Department of Education is working closely with Central Falls “to adjust for this influx and take corrective action,” according to spokesperson Meg Geoghegan.
But she acknowledged there isn’t currently an easy way to address the population swings.
“The best we can do is to build those variables into our budget process so we can be as nimble as possible.” Geoghegan said.