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Obama's Idea of Education Reform? Fire All the Teachers

Central Falls Thrust into School Reform Forefront

by Jennifer D. Jordan

CENTRAL FALLS, R.I. - "You're a coward!"

Central Falls High graduates gather in support of the teaching staff during Tuesday’s meeting in which all 93 teachers were fired. (The Providence Journal / Connie Grosch) "You should be ashamed!"

Shouts broke through the heavy silence that had fallen in the auditorium of Central Falls High School.

Supt. Frances Gallo had just recommended that the district's Board of Trustees fire the entire teaching staff of the city's only high school, effective at the end of the school year.

Then, as the board's vice chairwoman, Sonia Rodrigues, read each name aloud, a teacher stood. Some stood in silence, others held back tears.

"Look up, Gallo! Look at us!"

Gallo was sitting on the stage with the seven trustees and a small group of administrators. She rose and looked out at the audience in the packed high school auditorium. She remained standing until the last of 93 names - a history teacher, a reading specialist, physical education, music and art teachers, a social worker, a nurse, the school psychologist, even the principal - was called.

A few minutes earlier, a resolved Gallo had opened her remarks by lashing out at teachers union leaders who she said had contrived stories "that misinform and twist the truth." The union, the superintendent said, has distorted what went on in negotiations in "a deliberate attempt to obfuscate the issue of meaningful reform."

Once again, Gallo described what had led to Tuesday night's showdown.

She reiterated the conditions essential to transform the chronically troubled high school, plagued for years with dreadful test scores and a graduation rate of just 48 percent. She wanted the teachers to spend more time with their students and also more time improving their own skills.

Union leaders said at first they were on board with Gallo's vision for improving the high school. But the two sides couldn't agree on how much extra pay teachers should receive for the additional work.

Gallo said that if the teachers had gone along with her transformation plan, they would have had "100-percent job security."

Shouts broke out again.

"Boo!"

"Liar!"

The superintendent looked out and repeated: "100-percent job security. And still, the answer was no."

Gallo ended by recognizing the emotional toll the battle has taken. She acknowledged that many of the high school's 800 students love their teachers and have voiced support for the faculty in several public meetings. She asked the audience to also "remember those souls who make up the 52 percent of the student body we no longer see before us."

At a crowded outdoor rally held before the meeting, union leaders painted a very different picture.

"We think it's an outrage," Jane Sessums, president of the Central Falls Teachers Union, said, as hundreds of union supporters from across the state began flowing into Jenks Park. "Our members are feeling awful, devastated. How would you feel, being terminated?"

"If they can do this here, they can do this anywhere," said Marie Zaminer, a speech pathologist in Woonsocket schools. "I'm worried it will happen where I am."

Union officials said Gallo refused to negotiate with them and instead demanded they take on extra tasks. In some cases, teachers objected because they would not be paid for duties such as eating lunch with students once a week, or formalizing a tutoring schedule. In other cases, teachers said they already freely did those things, and resented being ordered to do so.

A dozen people - parents, students, union leaders - took turns at the microphone to decry the unfairness, to pledge solidarity and to vow to fight.

Jim Parisi, field representative for the Rhode Island Federation of Teachers, said Gallo was punishing teachers. "It is never acceptable to threaten anyone's job as a bargaining tactic. Not in this state," he shouted.

"This is not about time and money," Parisi said, as the crowd cheered. "It's about our right to negotiate time and money."

A few days before the showdown Gallo acknowledged the uncertainty that accompanies being at the forefront of radical change.

"I feel great trepidation," Gallo said in an interview in her office. "I have never been any kind of political entity. I do my job. I love my kids. This has thrown me into a new realm I am very uncomfortable with. But I can't wish it away. It is what it is. I have to promise to do my best, and see this through."

Gallo knows she has an ally in Education Commissioner Deborah A. Gist, who is aggressively adopting many of the changes outlined in new federal mandates to fix troubled schools.

From the day that Gist identified Central Falls High School as one of the state's worst performing schools, Gallo finally had the means - and the authority - to re-create the high school as a place entirely focused on the needs of students.

In her Jan. 11 order, Gist instructed the district to select one of four methods to fix the ailing school and gave Gallo just 45 days to decide. Transformation was one option; turnaround another. Gallo had already decided the two other approaches - closing the school or turning it over to a charter-management organization - weren't viable.

With their swift actions, Gist and Gallo have placed Rhode Island at the vanguard of the latest wave of school reform. And no one - not federal or state officials, not education experts, not union leaders - is sure how it will all work out.

U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan has taken notice.

"I applaud Commissioner Gist and Superintendent Gallo for showing courage and doing the right thing for kids," Duncan said Tuesday night.

Governor Carcieri also praised Gallo and the trustees for their "action to reform Central Falls High School."

As both Gallo and Gist fielded calls from the national media Wednesday, the commissioner of education said she recognized the gravity of their actions.

"These are the lives of young people - more than 50 percent of whom are not finishing high school, which completely changes the course of their lives," Gist said.

"And this choice that Dr. Gallo made, and that we support, also affects the lives of people who have chosen to be teachers and have dedicated their lives to education. So this is an extremely serious situation," she said. "But we have to do the right thing, and I do commend Dr. Gallo for her courageous steps."

It is unclear what will happen next.

Union president Sessums says she is pursuing all legal options to fight the across-the-board firings.

Gallo has 120 days to develop a detailed plan explaining how she will turn around the high school, starting in the fall.

Some of the fired teachers - up to half - could be rehired, as allowed in the federal turnaround model.

As of Wednesday morning, 88 teachers, along with the high school's administrative team, faced their own uncertainty. All 93 were sent letters of termination.

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