After Firings Halted, Some Bemoan State Of R.I. School
MELISSA BLOCK, Host:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.
ROBERT SIEGEL, Host:
Central Falls High is a poor-performing school just outside Providence, Rhode Island. It got national headlines back in February.
(SOUNDBITE OF NEWS CLIPS)
F: 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.
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.
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: 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.
FRANCES GALLO: This is not a war. That's a horrible description of what's going on.
SANCHEZ: 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.
VICTOR CAPELLAN: And if the teachers were doing such an amazing job, we would not have a 48 percent graduation rate. It is completely unacceptable.
SANCHEZ: 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.
JOE TRAVERS: 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.
KATHY MAY: 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.
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.
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: Unidentified Man #3: You want to knock him out?
(SOUNDBITE OF SCREAMING AND LAUGHING)
SANCHEZ: 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?
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.
GEORGE MCLAUGHLIN: 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: 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.
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.
DEBORAH GIST: 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: Claudio Sanchez, NPR News.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.