School Fires Its Teachers In The Name Of Progress Central Falls, Rhode Island, is the smallest city in the smallest state — but it's at the center of one of biggest debates in education. That is: How to turn around failing public schools? As part of a federal initiative, district officials have embarked on a major overhaul of their only high school, and have announced the firing of all teachers.
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School Fires Its Teachers In The Name Of Progress

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School Fires Its Teachers In The Name Of Progress

School Fires Its Teachers In The Name Of Progress

School Fires Its Teachers In The Name Of Progress

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Central Falls, Rhode Island, is the smallest city in the smallest state — but it's at the center of one of biggest debates in education. That is: How to turn around failing public schools? As part of a federal initiative, district officials have embarked on a major overhaul of their only high school, and have announced the firing of all teachers.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

And I'm Renee Montagne. President Obama wants to give almost a billion dollars to schools with high dropout rates, but here's the catch: School districts must consider making them charter schools or take other drastic measures - like firing the principal and all the teachers.

President BARACK OBAMA: That's what happened in Rhode Island last week at a chronically troubled school when just 7 percent of 11th graders passed state math tests - 7 percent. When a school board wasn't able to deliver change by other means, they voted to lay off the faculty and the staff.

MONTAGNE: Although that was not in response to the president's education initiative, Mr. Obama thinks the Central Falls, Rhode Island, school district did the right thing. But as Rhode Island Public Radio's Elisabeth Harrison reports, not everyone in town agrees.

ELISABETH HARRISON: Central Falls educators are fighting for their jobs. Teachers Union President Jane Sessums addressed a crowd of about 400 in this former mill town, where more than 40 percent of children live in poverty and less than half finish high school on time.

Ms. JANE SESSUMS (Central Falls Teachers Union President): We don't make excuses for anything, but we do have to speak about realities. Children of poverty come to school with a lot of issues.

HARRISON: Central Falls High School serves a student body that is mostly Hispanic, and 40 percent of students speak a language other than English at home. But after five years of state-ordered reforms, just 7 percent of juniors tested proficient in math this fall, one of the lowest rates in the state.

So school officials announced a dramatic, new step. They will fire everyone who has a role in teaching, at the end of the school year. Math teacher Kathy Luther was outraged.

Ms. KATHY LUTHER (Math Teacher): I've been at Central Falls for 28 years, and I have done nothing to deserve to be fired. Absolutely nothing. I give my heart and my soul to my job, and I don't deserve this at all.

HARRISON: Rhode Island officials identified Central Falls High and five other schools for so-called turnarounds, under a federal program aimed at the bottom 5 percent of public schools. It gives district officials four choices: close the failing school; turn it into a charter school; replace at least half the staff; or give time to improve with a longer school day, and more time for tutoring and teacher training.

Central Falls superintendent Fran Gallo says she wanted to give the school a chance, but teachers would not agree to add 30 minutes to the school day and 90 minutes a week for faculty meetings.

Ms. FRAN GALLO (Central Falls Superintendent): An 8-to-3 day is still slim compared to what's expected in all of the successful models that I looked at. Ninety minutes a week, opportunity to sit in your small learning community groups and build. I did not ask for the world. I asked for the very minimum.

Mr. JIM�PARISI (Rhode Island Federation of Teachers): We've always been flexible.

HARRISON: Jim�Parisi is with the Rhode Island Federation of Teachers, the union that represents Central Falls. He blames district officials for refusing to negotiate.

Mr. PARISI: The proposal that's on the table today is the same proposal that the school district started with. They haven't budged one inch. And we think that they're doing that because they don't think there's any collective bargaining for teachers anymore.

HARRISON: State officials support Gallo's decision to fire the staff, though up to 50 percent can be rehired. But students like senior Maria Butzina(ph) described the process as heartbreaking.

Ms. MARIA BUTZINA (Student): The teachers do the best they can. They show up every day. They help us so much. Like Ms. Evanov(ph), she's here every day after school. She has great bonds with the students. I can't understand why they would want to fire her. It's hard.

HARRISON: The Central Falls teachers have vowed to appeal the termination policy, saying it violates their right to negotiate working conditions. District officials say they have no plans to return to the bargaining table.

For NPR News, I'm Elisabeth Harrison.

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