By NICHOLAS BOKE/ecoRI News contributor
CENTRAL FALLS, R.I. — It’s hard to imagine the inspired vision it took to get the McKenna Center for Teaching, Learning and Research to this point. To most people, the run-down Victorian just across the street from Central Falls High School was nothing but a dangerous eyesore.
On a bright, breezy Monday morning in early June, however, the vision began to come to life as several dozen local dignitaries attended the ground-breaking ceremony for what Central Falls High School principal Troy Silvia referred to as “a research center for best practices in education. An extension of the high school where Rhode Island College is being brought to Central Falls, right across from the school.”
This vision began in 2014, when then-Central Falls superintendent Frances Gallo and Mayor James Diossa together imagined something other than the rotted clapboards, peeling paint, broken windows and missing balcony railings of this infamous haunt for drug-dealers and petty criminals.
Once they began imagining, however, they developed a project that may be unique in the country, since it will provide Rhode Island College (RIC) student teachers with housing essentially on the doorstep of the high school.
RIC and Central Falls have a well-established relationship. RIC’s Innovation Lab — a teaching and research partnership that focuses on urban education, community development, and health and wellness activities such as Parent College — has been in place since 2013.
Moreover, RIC has an arrangement whereby Central Falls juniors with a grade-point average of 2.5 or better are awarded the incentive of “provisional acceptance” if they keep up their grades and attendance records during their senior year. If they apply to RIC, application fees are waived, and they receive other benefits. More than 20 Central Falls High School students chose RIC last year, and the number seems likely to double this year.
Jennifer Giroux, RIC’s associate vice president for professional studies and continuing education, sees the McKenna Center as an opportunity to strengthen the connection between RIC and Central Falls, by enriching the already-existing connections that benefit the high school, the community and RIC.
“This project,” she said, “will open opportunities for us to provide job training and career counseling for parents during the day. And RIC student teachers who work in the school will live here and be available for tutoring after school.”
Once the work is completed — it’s scheduled to be done by early next year — the McKenna Center will not only be spruced up and refurbished on the outside, but will be entirely reconfigured on the inside. The ground floor will house three research labs, a computer lab and a flex space that can be converted from one large into several small meeting rooms. The second and third floors will provide free housing for the RIC students who will spend the year doing their student teaching at the school, as well as providing after-school tutoring.
“It’s a very tight site,” William Stark Architects senior project manager David Andrade said. “We had to fit the needs of the program and come within budget. We wanted the design to maintain the exterior character, the historic character.”
Diossa, in his remarks, connected the hopes for the center directly with his own experience. “Growing up here, I had parents from Colombia who didn’t speak English,” he said. “But they always pushed me to get a good education. They couldn’t help me with my homework, though. But they pushed me and I found help. And this allowed me ...” he paused, “to become mayor.”
Central Falls superintendent Victor Capellan acknowledged the hard work done by his predecessor and Diossa. Noting that during Gallo’s tenure, the graduation rate skyrocketed from 48 percent in 2011 to 80 percent in 2016.
“This will enable us to take (Gallo’s) work to the next level,” he said.
Capellan’s faith in the school’s progress was echoed by Linmary Derosa, 16, a Central Falls High School rising senior. “We’re very serious about our education here,” she said. “I’ve got several friends who need help and now they’ll be able to take advantage of the center after school.”
Rising senior Ronny Jimenez, 17, agreed. “Like the mayor said, this is a very diverse community, and there are parents who can’t help their kids because their English isn’t good enough or they didn’t go to enough school. We never had a place where we could come and work together before. This will make a difference.”
Diossa, introducing donors Margaret and Katherine McKenna, noted that he had grown up on the same Central Falls street where they had lived as children. Margaret McKenna, who is president of Boston’s Suffolk University, expressed her long-standing belief in the importance of elementary- and high-school education, saying this center is “a way to give hope to our students.”
Katherine McKenna, a sister of the Presentation of the Blessed Virgin Mary, recalled their family’s longtime involvement in education, noting that both their father and their mother worked in Central Falls schools, and that their aunt Agnes had worked in the system for 50 years.
The mayor’s chief of staff, Joshua Giraldo, noted that funding for the project is entirely private. Project partners also include The Champlin Foundations, Navigant Credit Union, Pawtucket Credit Union, TACO Inc., Civic Builders and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.
Providence resident Nicholas Boke is a freelance writer and international education consultant. He runs a blog called Waiting for the Barbarian.