Plan to stem dropout rate stirs controversy

No more than half of those instructors would be hired back under the federal “turnaround” option—a plan that has enraged the state’s teachers union, earned criticism from students, and brought praise from U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan and some parents.

Central Falls High School has long been one of the worst performing schools in Rhode Island—and now it has become a high-profile test of the Obama administration’s restructuring model for failing schools. The mass firings follow Superintendent Frances Gallo’s recommendation in adopting the “turnaround model” espoused by Obama and Duncan.

Just 7 percent of the school’s 11th graders who were tested in the fall were proficient in math. Only 33 percent were proficient in writing, and just 55 percent were proficient in reading. In 2008, just 52 percent of students graduated within four years—and 30 percent dropped out.

The school district’s board of trustees approved the firings on Feb. 23 after talks failed between Gallo and the local teachers union over implementing changes, including offering more tutoring and a longer school day.

The teachers said they wanted more pay for the additional work.

The shake-up comes as Rhode Island’s new education commissioner, Deborah Gist, pushes the state to compete for millions of dollars in federal funding to reform the worst 5 percent of its schools, including in Central Falls. State law requires schools to warn teachers by March 1 if their jobs are in jeopardy for the following school year.

Duncan applauded the plan, saying students only have one chance for an education.

“When schools continue to struggle, we have a collective obligation to take action,” he said in a written statement.

The U.S. Department of Education does not play a role in deciding which improvement model school districts choose and did not know whether Central Falls was the first to opt to get rid of its teachers, said Sandra Abrevaya, a department spokeswoman.

The decision won praise from Republican Gov. Don Carcieri, a former math teacher who supports Gist.

“We can no longer stand by as our schools underperform,” Carcieri said in a written statement. “While we have some excellent individual teachers, our students continue to be held back by a lack of a quality education and by union leadership that puts their self-interests above the interests of the students.”

Leaders from the local teachers union did not respond to repeated requests for comment from the Associated Press. But in a news release issued earlier in the week, Jane Sessums, president of the Central Falls Teachers Union, said teachers had already agreed to several reforms, including teacher evaluations and schedule changes. She added that the administration was scapegoating teachers.

On Feb. 25, American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten said in a statement that improvements made in the last two years at Central Falls High School have been overlooked “in the rush to make judgments and cast blame.” Weingarten said reading scores, for example, have risen by 21 percent.

“We are disappointed that U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan didn’t get all the facts or even speak with teachers before weighing in on the mass firing at Central Falls High School,” Weingarten added.

More children live in poverty in Central Falls, a city of just 1 square mile, than anywhere else in Rhode Island. Until recently, one of the city’s few growth industries was a quasi-public jail.

Shantel Joseph, 42, who lives just a block from the high school, was uncertain when asked whether her 16-year-old son would graduate.

“He might,” she said, noting that he earns mostly Cs and Ds on his report card and appears to be assigned little homework. Still, she opposed mass firings in a city where unemployment stands at 13.8 percent.

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