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

Published on
by
The Providence Journal (Rhode Island)

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

Central Falls Thrust into School Reform Forefront

by
Jennifer D. Jordan

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)

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

"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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