Last Tuesday night, a school board in Rhode Island voted 5 – 2 to fire all the teachers, the administration and the entire support staff at Central Falls High School. Ninety-three people, including the principal, three assistant principals and 77 teachers, will lose their jobs.
The reason? Central Falls High School is under-performing: in 2009, 48 percent of its students graduated after four years, compared with a state average of 75 percent, according to a state education department spokesperson. And last fall, 7 percent of 11th graders tested at the proficient level in math, and 55 percent in reading.
The firings take effect at the end of the academic year. This is the final step for schools deemed “failing” under No Child Left Behind (NCLB). At this point, state and district officials have four options for under-performing schools: the turnaround model, which includes improving instruction as well as replacing staff; reopening a school as a charter or under an approved management system; closing a school altogether; and transforming the school through such measures as intense teacher development and extended learning time for students.
The turnaround plan in Central Falls came after negotiations between the district and the local union over other options broke down. According to School Superintendent Frances Gallo, teachers were originally asked to agree to a package of changes to help improve the school, including lengthening the school day, requiring teachers to offer more tutoring, get additional training and eat lunch with students once a week. Gallo said she decided to fire her teaching staff after union officials said they were not getting paid enough for the additional work.
Can this really be the best way to solve the problem of this school? Arne Duncan, US Secretary of Education, applauded the decision and said in an interview, “The status quo needs to change. This is not the kind of stability I want. I’m looking for improvement.” Governor Donald L. Carcieri of Rhode Island, a Republican and a former math teacher, said he supported the board’s decision, calling it “courageous.” Not everyone agrees. Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, issued this statement: “Firing all of the teachers is a failed approach and will not result in the
kinds of changes necessary to improve instruction and learning.”
Indeed, this seems to be yet another example of trying to impose the NCLB one-size-fits-all model on every single school, regardless of the circumstances. In this case, these are the following: Central Falls, a former mill town with a population of around 19,000 and an unemployment rate of 13.8 percent, is one of the poorest cities in the state: 41 percent of children live in poverty and 63
percent of the high school’s students qualify for free or reduced-price lunch. Of the 800 students at the high school, 65 percent are Hispanic and speak English as a second language.
And there’s more: George McLaughlin, a guidance counselor at the school, pointed out the school has a huge turnover rate, with one in three students leaving every year : “We have the most transient population in this state.
Nobody comes close to us. So when they say that 50 percent of the people graduate, a very high percentage of our students leave our school. They return. They leave again. They go back to other countries.”
So this city which is already suffering from some huge economic problems is now being punished again by the firing of the entire high school staff and faculty. Is this fair? Does it even make sense?
Central Falls’ story is just the latest skirmish in the battle over school reform that has been playing out in other troubled districts in Chicago, Philadelphia and New York, where it was announced last month that 19 schools will be closed for not making the grade. Experts predict that more such cases are likely to happen across the U.S. in the coming year because of pressure from the Obama adminstration.
And what’s going to happen next? Of course it’s vital to deal with the problem of consistently failing schools, but after firing all the teachers, the school board had better be ready with a grand new plan to help that school improve.