Meet Fran Gallo and James Diossa, respectively the superintendent and mayor of Central Falls, Rhode Island—a small community where big things are starting to take place. Just north of Providence, Central Falls is one of the most diverse communities in the United States. The 2,700-student Central Falls School District is about the same size as the Riverbank Unified School District northwest of Modesto, Calif., the Norwalk Schools, south of Des Moines, and the East Pennsboro School Area School District in southern Pennsylvania. Families in Central Falls are filled with hopes and aspirations. This town went bankrupt in 2011, but emerged from that crisis once state officials stepped in to cut budgets, raise taxes and bring financial order. The library threatened to close, there are no tennis courts, and green space and college readiness are at a minimum. But things are starting to look brighter. Gallo—the tough, tender and tireless superintendent—has worked with her team to transform educational experiences for students. She has brought focus, commitment and high expectations to the district. The portfolio of options open to students includes six district schools and five charter school organizations as part of a district-charter compact, and the pockets of cooperation are growing as teachers energize each another. Is it perfect? Absolutely not. There’s a long way to go. But Superintendent Gallo and Mayor Diossa are committed for the long haul.
Consider some of the collaborations that are underway. Somehow, Mayor Diossa convinced actor Alec Baldwin to come to Central Falls to contribute funding and campaign to keep the library open. The United States Tennis Association has committed funds to bring tennis courts to Central Falls. Mayor Diossa and Superintendent Gallo are working with Rhode Island College to refurbish a Victorian home to serve as a tutoring center, staffed by college students. And Mayor Diossa, who grew up in Central Falls, has a deep commitment to the entire community, including the students. Diossa became a city councilmember at 24, and at 27, was elected in 2012 as Central Falls’ first Latino mayor. He spent time working for College Crusade of Rhode Island, a program that encourages low-income students to stay in school and prepare for postsecondary education. He told me that he knows he’s making a difference when elementary students wave to him, and as a result of his frequent visits to schools, it’s the students who introduce their parents to the mayor, rather than the reverse. Small victories build community, and the Baldwin event, coupled with the mayor’s decision to keep City Hall open after 6:00 p.m. so community members have a place to watch the World Cup, symbolize the importance of how a city and school district can care.
There are feel-good stories around the country, and if I were to predict which communities will have happy endings, my money would be on Central Falls. So if you’re driving through Providence on your way north or south, reach out to Superintendent Gallo (firstname.lastname@example.org) or Mayor Diossa (email@example.com) to see if they have a few minutes to share their optimism. My bet is you’ll catch the same dose of energy I did.