After Firings Halted, Some Bemoan State Of R.I. School

Central Falls High School in Rhode Island became a poster child for failing schools earlier this year when the district proposed firing all of its teachers. The teachers subsequently agreed to concessions and a new performance plan, and many are now back in the classroom. But some teachers and their students say conditions at the school have only gotten worse.

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MELISSA BLOCK, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

I'm Robert Siegel.

And we begin this hour at ground zero in the debate over education reform.

Central Falls High is a poor-performing school just outside Providence, Rhode Island. It got national headlines back in February.

(Soundbite of news clips)

Unidentified Man #1: Another big story. Hundreds of teachers rally in Central Falls.

Unidentified Woman #1: The school is among the worst in the state. And tonight, they voted to give pink slips to every single teacher.

Unidentified Man #2: The school has only a 48-percent graduation rate.

Unidentified Woman #2: After the kids kept falling behind, the teachers were fired.

SIEGEL: Ultimately, that decision was reversed and no teachers were fired, but morale and working conditions are worse now than ever. And as NPR's Claudio Sanchez reports, it is the students who are suffering.

CLAUDIO SANCHEZ: For 17-year-old Julie Perez, Central Falls High has gone from bad to worse. Abandoned, that's how she says she feels. Even by her favorite teacher in AP English.

Ms. JULIE PEREZ: My teacher has been absent since about the second week of school. Then there were some classes that we had no substitutes at all. Like, I'll just sit there, and I'll literally be on my phone the whole time, and that's my education going down the drain.

SANCHEZ: Julie shivers in the frigid morning air next to a six-foot tall peace sign in front of the school's main entrance. But there is no peace here, only tension, says Julie.

Ms. PEREZ: The hallways are horrible. The students run through. They scream everywhere. Like, if there's no teacher in the class, what are kids supposed to do? Like, just walk around the school and misbehave. I just feel like they need to fix everything.

SANCHEZ: That was the idea nine months ago, to fix everything: the behavior of students, the quality of instruction, the school's leadership. But when the teachers union balked, school officials fired the entire faculty and staff. It quickly sparked a national debate about struggling schools and what it will take to turn them around.

Central Falls High eventually dropped the idea of firing everyone, but as far as teachers were concerned, the so-called transformation plan was a declaration of war. Nonsense, says Frances Gallo, superintendent of schools.

Ms. FRANCES GALLO (Superintendent, Central Falls): This is not a war. That's a horrible description of what's going on.

SANCHEZ: Gallo says transformation simply meant getting teachers to agree to a tougher evaluation policy: mandatory training, more time devoted to tutoring students, eating lunch with them. It was the only way this impoverished school system could qualify for millions of dollars in new federal aid, money that the Obama administration wants to use to fix failing schools, or what the president calls dropout factories.

Central Falls could get up to $2 million to help pay for its transformation. The man hired to oversee it, Deputy Superintendent Victor Capellan, says teachers will be held accountable for students' academic performance. In math, a mere 7 percent today are at grade level. In reading, about 50 percent. Less than half of the school's ninth graders graduate in four years.

Mr. VICTOR CAPELLAN (Deputy Superintendent, Central Falls): And if the teachers were doing such an amazing job, we would not have a 48 percent graduation rate. It is completely unacceptable.

SANCHEZ: But teachers say they're the only ones being held accountable, not administrators or school board members, not parents, not even the students. Most teachers who spoke to NPR declined to be taped for fear of reprisals. A few, like Joe Travers, want to be heard.

Travers, a burly gregarious man has been a health and P.E. teacher here for two decades. I met him outside the school right before his mandatory tutoring session with a couple of kids, something that most teachers have always done voluntarily, says Travers.

Mr. JOE TRAVERS (Health and P.E. Teacher, Central Falls High School): We've been coming in early to help kids for years. We've been staying late to help kids for years. But public perception says that we're no good because we're not here to help kids. That's totally false. There's a teacher, Kathy May, right here. Hi, Kat. How are you?

SANCHEZ: Kathy May, a special education teacher, carries a tote bag overflowing with papers hanging from one arm. She's been teaching 24 years.

Ms. KATHY MAY (Special Education Teacher, Central Falls High School): But the working conditions have never been like they are here. There's no trust.

SANCHEZ: Sure, lots of kids here can barely read, she says, but that's how they arrive: years behind in basic academic skills, poorly fed, poorly clothed.

Ms. MAY: So we fought for the academic pieces, but we also did stuff like bought glasses for kids, paid rent for kids, bought food for kids. But the perception is you're cheating them because you're not giving them the education they really need.

SANCHEZ: Helping kids outside school is fine says Deputy Superintendent Victor Capellan. But if they're not learning, you are cheating them.

Mr. CAPELLAN: I want to see them teach the students. I don't want them taking them home for Thanksgiving. I want to see them delivering rigorous instruction. That's what I want from the teachers.

SANCHEZ: Talk to teachers who are collaborating with administrators, says Capellan. The ones I meet are new. They say they support Capellan and want to see the transformation plan work. No one though, not a single one, wants to speak on tape for fear that they'll be seen as sellouts by teachers opposed to the plan.

I settle for a short tour of the school. It's Friday, lunchtime. The hallways are packed. Security staff and hallway monitors are everywhere.

(Soundbite of screaming and laughing)

Unidentified Man #3: You want to knock him out?

SANCHEZ: A short skinny boy walks right past Capellan screaming at the top of his lungs. Capellan only glares at him. Another boy turns to Capellan and offers to knock the screaming kid out.

Kids curse in front of adults, but no one admonishes them. Some faculty members say they fear for their safety. Two teachers have filed assault charges against students. I ask Capellan about that and about what we just saw and heard in the hallways. Are they unsafe?

Mr. CAPELLAN: It's certainly not accurate. Students are not beating up teachers. You can say, you know, I was shoved by a student, but you were not beat up by a student. You were not assaulted. The way that the students are being portrayed is also unfair, and to criminalize them, I think that's unfair.

SANCHEZ: So far this year, six teachers have taken stress-related medical leave. Eighteen have resigned. George McLaughlin, a veteran guidance counselor, is one of them.

Mr. GEORGE McLAUGHLIN (Former Guidance Counselor, Central Falls High School): The day I left and handed in my resignation, I walked out of that school and I said I feel like I'm leaving my people in a prison camp.

SANCHEZ: Even after he resigned, McLaughlin says he kept getting anonymous calls like this one at home.

Unidentified Woman #3: If you are the teachers from Central Falls, you should be ashamed of yourself. You're disgusting.

SANCHEZ: That's what's dangerous about all this, says McLaughlin. The crisis at Central Falls High, the only high school in this community barely one square mile in size, is part of a much bigger trend that has turned public opinion against teachers by demonizing them, all in the name of school reform.

Mr. McLAUGHLIN: There's a difference between reform and destruction, and what this is, is destruction. Teachers better wake up in this country.

SANCHEZ: Indeed, teachers better wake up, says Rhode Island Education Commissioner Deborah Gist, because from this point on, no more excuses.

Ms. DEBORAH GIST (Commissioner of Education, Rhode Island): If you have folks who after getting support can't make the progress that they need to make, then we will be moving out people who aren't performing. Absolutely.

SANCHEZ: After a tense closed-door meeting with teachers on Monday, Gist told reporters that the state will consider closing Central Falls High if the problems at the school persist. Some teachers have already indicated they have no intention of finishing out the year.

Claudio Sanchez, NPR News.

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