Rhode Island Schools Chief At Odds With Teachers After Mass Firings President Obama made reference to Central Falls High School in Rhode Island in an education policy speech yesterday. Local education officials there recently announced the firing of the entire faculty and staff, due to poor test scores and stalled reform efforts. While the president pointed to that action as a necessary step toward reform, the move has been quite controversial among teachers, parents and students at the school: Host Lynn Neary takes a closer look at the story with Elisabeth Harrison, education reporter at Rhode Island Public Radio.

Rhode Island Schools Chief At Odds With Teachers After Mass Firings

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This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Im Lynn Neary. Michel Martin is out sick.

Coming up, we have an update about two shooting deaths by New Orleans police officers during Hurricane Katrina, and a conspiracy to cover them up that is now unraveling. Thats in a few minutes.

But first, President Barack Obama took aim at the nations high dropout rate during a speech yesterday to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. The president put pressure on high school educators and students to master the basics that lead to graduation.

President BARACK OBAMA: We know that the success of every American will be tied more closely than ever before to the level of education that they achieve. The jobs will go to the people with the knowledge and the skills to do them. Its that simple. In this kind of knowledge economy, giving up on your education and dropping out of school means not only giving up on your future, but its also giving up on your familys future, and giving up on your countrys future.

NEARY: To make his point about ending the dropout rate, President Obama focused on Central Falls High School in Rhode Island where all of the teachers and administrators were fired.

Here to discuss this with us is Elisabeth Harrison, education reporter at Rhode Island Public Radio. Welcome to the program, Elisabeth.

ELISABETH HARRISON: Its nice to be here.

NEARY: So, fill us in on the background here. Why were these teachers and administrators let go?

HARRISON: Well, Central Falls was identified by the state as being one of the worst 5 percent of schools in Rhode Island under a federal program that calls for turning around failing schools. Its funded partially through stimulus money, and its also part of the No Child Left Behind legislation.

So through that program, they had some choices about what they could do with the school. One of them is to keep the current staff in place and make some pretty major reforms like lengthening the school day, adding more time for teacher training, for tutoring and for meeting and planning time for teachers. And another option is to fire the staff and rehire no more than 50 percent and replace the principal.

So in this particular case, the school was hoping to do the option where you keep the staff in place but make some reforms. But they just couldnt come to an agreement with the teachers union about the specifics of those reforms. And so in the end, they said well, in that case, well have to fire everyone.

NEARY: Id like to play a piece of tape here. This is the Central Falls superintendent Fran Gallo. And shes pointing out that many of the students in this school live in poverty and that that may affect what happens in school. Lets listen to that tape.

Ms. FRANCES GALLO (Superintendent, Central Falls High School): We have dysfunctional families. We have a community that is struggling to keep its head above water. And, yes, theres abuse. Theres teen pregnancy, high, high rates against any of the Rhode Island standards. But what do we do? We give them a shoulder to cry on. Well, thank you, but thats not all that a teacher must do.

NEARY: So, to what degree has the nature of this school, the fact that many of the kids do come from poverty - to what degree that has been taken into account in assessing this schools failure?

HARRISON: Well, I think thats a good question. Its certainly a school that faces many challenges: A lot of immigrant families, a lot of students who do not speak English at home, a lot of poverty. And those things make teachers jobs harder to do and theres no question that thats a factor. I think state officials in Rhode Island have basically said, yes, thats a problem. But we are seeing schools in New York and elsewhere who are succeeding with similar students, and we think that we can do the same.

NEARY: Is this the first time that this kind of extreme step has been taken in Rhode Island?

HARRISON: No, its not the first time. Theres a school in Providence called Hope High School, and that school was essentially closed and reopened. The staff was laid off, and teachers had an opportunity to reapply for their positions, similar to what were seeing at Central Falls High School. And the results there have been, I would say, mixed.

In some ways, the district feels the school has made great progress in terms of changing the culture of the school, student behavior, improving relationships between students and their teachers. But the test scores, while they have improved somewhat, are nowhere near what I think district officials were hoping to see. So theres still work to be done there.

NEARY: Now, not surprisingly, this is a move that is not sitting particularly well with teachers. We have some tape here from a math teacher at this school, a woman named Kathy Luther. Lets listen to that now.

Ms. KATHY LUTHER (Math, Central Falls High School): Ive been in Central Falls for 28 years and I have done nothing to deserve to be fired, absolutely nothing. I give my heart, my soul to my job, and I dont deserve this at all.

NEARY: So is there a sense there that some teachers who maybe are doing a good job are being hurt by the failures of others, that maybe this is just too drastic a move?

HARRISON: Absolutely. There are a lot of veteran teachers there. In fact, there are a lot of teachers in Central Falls who went to Central Falls High School, and they love their jobs. They clearly love their students and their students have rallied in their defense as well. So clearly, you know, there are students who love their teachers there and who feel their teachers are doing great work.

And at least 50 percent of them or up to 50 percent of them, I should say, can be rehired in this process, so some of them may be back. But theres no question that theyre caught up in the crossfire of this effort to turn around the school.

NEARY: You mentioned that the administration of the school was not able to come to terms with the union on, I guess, reforms that they were trying to make. What is going on now with the union? How is the union reacting to this? What steps are they planning to take?

HARRISON: Well, the union is very upset. They feel that this really is an attack on their right to bargain over working conditions. And they have pledged to take action. What exactly theyre going to do is not totally clear. They are going to appeal the terminations to the school board, which will trigger a hearing process. But the school board has already approved this policy. So its not clear what the result of that would be. Theyve also said they plan to file a complaint with the State Labor Relations Board. So, this looks like its headed into legal territory.

NEARY: Elisabeth Harrison is education reporter for Rhode Island Public Radio. She was good enough to join us from member station WRNI. Thanks so much for joining us, Elisabeth.

HARRISON: Thank you.

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