School Rehires Some 90 Fired Teachers, Counselors

The low-performing Central Falls High School in Rhode Island made national headlines in February after district officials fired nearly 90 teachers and counselors. But after dramatic negotiations, the district has reached a deal with the union to return all staff members to their jobs. Guest host Allison Keyes talks with education reporter Elisabeth Harrison, who is covering the story for Rhode Island NPR member station WRNI.

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ALLISON KEYES, host:

I'm Allison Keyes. This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Michel Martin is away.

Rhode Island's education chief once called Central Falls High School one of the worst in the state. Fewer than half of the students graduate in four years. The Central Falls District fired almost 90 teachers and counselors earlier this year when the district and teachers union couldn't agree on reforms.

President Obama and Education Secretary Arne Duncan both voiced support for the district's actions at the time. But after months of dramatic negotiations, the Central Fall District agreed to bring back the staff. Here's Jane Sessums, president of the Rhode Island Teachers Union.

Ms. JANE SESSUMS (President, Rhode Island Teachers Union): I am so proud of our teachers at Central Falls High School. They should be commended for their professionalism during these very difficult, turbulent months. They have always put the students first. I hope the rest of the country can learn from our experience and avoid the pitfalls of mass terminations.

KEYES: Joining me now with an update on the situation is education reporter Elisabeth Harrison, who covers the story for WRNI, the NPR member station in Rhode Island. Elisabeth, welcome back.

ELISABETH HARRISON: It's nice to be here.

KEYES: So how bad was it at the school and how did it get that way in the first place?

HARRISON: Well, Central Falls High School has long been known as one of the worst in the state. It's a relatively poor area. It also has a lot of immigrant families, children who may be new to the country or who don't speak English at home. The district says that's about 30 percent of their population. So they have real challenges there.

KEYES: What kind of reforms were the teachers protesting in the first place? 'Cause this all broke down over a set of reforms that the district wanted to do to improve scores, right?

HARRISON: That's right. The reforms initially proposed by the district included lengthening the school day, adding time after school for tutoring and for faculty meetings and time over the summer for training.

KEYES: But there was a dispute over how that was all going to be paid for. Is that what broke everything apart?

HARRISON: Well, that's what it seems. It's hard to know because those negotiations happen behind closed doors. What we do know is that they couldn't reach an agreement and that led to the district deciding they would fire all of the teachers and rehire no more than half of them under a turnaround plan that's described in state and federal policy.

KEYES: Let's take a listen to a clip from Fran Gallo. She's the district superintendent there.

Ms. FRAN GALLO (Rhode Island School District): It's been extraordinarily fruitful because we gained an understanding of reform and of what it takes to make that reform. It's going to be hard. It's going to be difficult. This isn't like, oh boy, here's the cake and now we're just going to sit down and enjoy eating it all. No, no, we may have all of the ingredients, but now it's how do we figure out how much of this and how much of that goes into making this very successful baking product that we're about to mix up.

KEYES: But the thing is the school still has a pretty long way to go if only seven percent of the students there are competent in math and fewer than half are graduating in four years. How is this new agreement going to help that? How does it specifically focus on improving test scores?

HARRISON: Well, that's the big question and I think, you know, if we knew the answers to how to fix those problems, we wouldn't have schools like Central Falls High School. We wouldn't need policies like this that call for dramatic school turnarounds. I think what the district and what superintendent Fran Gallo believes is that they now have a partnership with teachers that gives them the flexibility to try to address some of these issues.

Whether their plan will be successful and what exactly their plan will mean is not clear yet. That's something they have to work out. But certainly it's going to include a 30 minute longer school day, more time, about an hour a week that each teacher will devote after school to working, tutoring students. They've moved their faculty meetings to after the school day so they will not be doing that during the school day and they'll have more time in the day for instruction. Those are some of the things they're looking at. We'll see what else is part of the plan.

KEYES: So what are parents saying about all this? I mean, if I have a kid at this school and scores are so bad there, where is the guarantee that something is going to change if they rehired all the teachers that were there in the first place?

HARRISON: Well, parents at least up to this point have been relatively quiet. The school doesn't have, you know, a parent/teacher organization that many schools have, you know, like a lot of high schools in neighborhoods like Central Falls. Parents are busy, they're working, they're not as involved as the school would like. That's one of the complaints that teachers have. We do know that, you know, there were parents who advocated for the teachers and a lot of students who did as well who felt that these teachers have been at the school a long time.

They are personal friends with the students when they need them. You know, and sometimes they act as parental figures. So there are clearly some very close relationships that develop between the teachers and the students in this high school. That's one of the things they may have going for them as they move forward.

KEYES: Is there some kind of backup plan? I mean, say, you get a semester into this plan, whatever the final version ends up being, and there's no improvement in the scores. Do they have to go back to the drawing board? Are teachers' jobs at risk again or do they just go on with the plan that they have?

HARRISON: Well, I think part of what the plan does is that it allows for a very in-depth evaluation process for teachers. And that may lead to some teachers being let go from the district if it turns out they're not able to do what supervisors feel they should be doing. The plan also calls for flexibility. That's one of the things the district really wanted. So that as they move forward, they can look at what they're doing, what changes they've made and try to assess whether it's working, whether it's not working, and if it's not working what to try instead.

KEYES: Elisabeth Harrison is the education reporter for NPR member station WRNI in Rhode Island. She joins us today from their studios in Providence. Thanks, Elisabeth, for the update.

HARRISON: It's been a pleasure.

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