The Teachers Are Back!

by by Erin Schikowski

Central Falls High School (CFHS) was the source of considerable media attention last February when Superintendent Frances Gallo announced that every teacher would be fired come the school year’s end. Because CFHS had fallen into the lowest five percent of consistently low-performing schools, Gallo was compelled to choose one reform model among the four set forth by Arne Duncan, President Obama’s Secretary of Education. With limited time and a teacher’s union that forcefully objected to the changes she proposed—including a longer school day, a formalized tutoring schedule, two weeks of professional development, and the implementation of more rigorous teacher evaluations—Gallo chose this last-resort model.

In mid-May, however, Gallo and the local American Federation of Teachers (AFT) reached an agreement whereby all teachers would be rehired—on the condition that certain changes be made at the school. After last spring’s uproar—the hate mail, impassioned student demonstrations, and teachers’ anger toward President Obama for supporting the firings—teachers and students have returned to CFHS, anxious and optimistic.

With an agreement reached and the layoffs avoided, many of the reforms Gallo proposed in February are now being implemented at the high school. Educators nationwide are watching carefully to see how Arne Duncan’s reform agenda plays out in the smallest city of the country’s smallest state.

In mid-August Gallo submitted a $2 million School Reform Plan—to be funded not by Race to the Top, but by the state’s School Improvement Grants—to the Rhode Island Department of Education. She and her leadership team have also appointed two new co-principals and a High School Transformation Officer, conducted two weeks of professional development for teachers, and brought in speakers to discuss how other schools that have used the transformation model successfully.

The new leadership team is confident that any lingering bitterness will dissipate as the School Reform Plan takes hold, and that student achievement will improve. However, if the plan is deemed unsuccessful by State Commissioner of Education Deborah Gist, the school could be reconstituted—that is, closed entirely.

Finding teachers willing to criticize these reform efforts is difficult—perhaps because the changes are extensive, or perhaps because they are still worried about their jobs. Nonetheless, embracing the reforms appears to be the only option teachers have. Joshua LaPlante, a science teacher at CFHS who helped advise the leadership team in drawing up the School Reform Plan, said, “what’s happening in Central Falls, it’s going to draw this definite line. You’re either going to embrace the change, or you’re really going to stand out alone.”

The School Reform Plan calls for top-down restructuring. This year, three administrators will share the work usually done by one principal—which should make it easier for the school district to hold each accountable for reaching different, very specific goals.

One administrator will deal with day-to-day tasks including facilities upkeep, the budget, the master calendar, human resources, and transportation, thereby “protecting” the two co-principals’ time from operational duties. One co-principal will manage curriculum development and assessment in all areas of academic study—no small task at a high school in which a mere seven percent of eleventh graders were deemed proficient in math, and only 65 percent were proficient in reading. The other co-principal will devote himself exclusively to the school’s climate and culture, which has long been criticized as one in which teachers do not push their students to excel. This co-principal will also coordinate parent outreach and work toward aligning student guidance and advising programs.

But the administrators are not the only ones being held accountable. A consortium involving the AFT and several core urban districts is currently working on a new teacher evaluation system for all Rhode Island schools. Instead of waiting for those plans to solidify, however, the CFHS administrators have instituted a similar teacher evaluation system of their own, in effect immediately.

Gallo hopes a more rigorous evaluation system—which may eventually include student performance rates—will precipitate a new school ethos, which she describes as having been unacceptably indifferent. She said, “For non-tenured staff, we had a good system. But for tenured staff, it was simply a matter of: create a goal, work toward that goal, and if you make it, you make it. If you don’t, you don’t. ‘So what?’ was the attitude toward evaluations at the end of the year.” Unfortunately, this attitude was not limited to a small percentage of the teaching faculty (75 percent are currently tenured).

Gallo, the administration, and teachers also hope the revamped schedule—which allows for more tutoring, a longer school day, and extra time for teachers to meet and plan—will improve students’ odds of success. However, the challenge for CFHS extends beyond the school’s walls, as some students face formidable structural barriers to attaining an education.

According to the 2000 US Census, 40.9 percent of Central Falls children aged eighteen and younger were living under the poverty line—about two and a half times the state average. Considering the child poverty rate increased by about nine percent between 1990 and 2000, and that there’s been a nation-wide recession since, the forthcoming 2010 Census data may be even more dismal.

The Central Falls population is also highly transient, which makes it hard for some families to provide their children with a consistent education. In 2006, for example, the number of new transfer students and leaving students together comprised about one third of the total student population. Bill Holland, who served as the Central Falls Interim Superintendent from 2006 to 2007, explains in his new book, A School in Trouble, that families are constantly moving into and out of the area in search of work and affordable housing.

Holland also noted that “nobody knows exactly how many people live in Central Falls. What we do know is that the 2000 figures are not accurate. The city’s chief of police believes that there are over twenty-five thousand residents in the city, acknowledging that many are undocumented immigrants.” The official 2000 Census underestimates that number by about 6,000 individuals.

LaPlante, who has taught at CFHS for five years, said: “Our goal is to get every student college-ready. But what does that mean in a community like this, where they don’t always go home to educated parents or libraries of books or computer resources? Sometimes they don’t go home to food, you know, so how do you take all the negativity in their lives and mold it and have students come out looking at that as a way to motivate themselves?”

Having spent time visiting families at home over the course of the year, and learning about their lives through those visits, LaPlante reflected: “You can feel as though you have the best understanding of what it means to create equal opportunities for these students, but you really need to make the connection more personally, with the students and their families, to have them buy into the fact that there is something more to what’s being taught in school.”

LaPlante also acknowledges the difference between a caring teacher-student relationship and one in which teachers push their students to excel and achieve. In a 2007 instructional audit at CFHS, education experts and veteran urban teachers from around the country concluded: “A culture based primarily on caring is not enough. Where such a culture dominates, neither teachers nor students are challenged to improve nor are they held to high expectations. Such is the case in Central Falls High School.” Thus while teachers must understand the structural barriers to education that their students are facing outside the classroom, they will also have to employ tough-love strategies in the classroom—and now more than ever since the pressure is on to increase test scores by the end of the year.

The School Reform Plan’s academic targets are ambitious. The new leadership team hopes to increase math proficiency from seven percent to 40 percent and reading proficiency from 65 percent to 85 percent by 2012. They are also hoping to increase the graduation rate from 48 percent to 80 percent over the same period of time.

During the professional development week held in August, workshop leaders impressed upon teachers the importance of incorporating student data—that is, actively tracking individual students’ progress and learning patterns—into their teaching methodology. Deloris Grant, who teaches English and drama at CFHS, said of the professional development weeks, “I think they’re basically trying to set us up for evaluation. Everything we do is surrounding that. They’ll be bringing in people from the outside…. They’re prepping us.”

In mid-March, a CFHS teacher hung an Obama doll upside-down in effigy at the front of his classroom; Gallo received hate mail in which the author wished cancer upon her family; and according to Holland in A School in Trouble, the president of the AFT said “there was a ‘toxic’ relationship between the administration and faculty unlike anything she had ever seen.”

How has the bitterness, distrust, and embarrassment been addressed? One thing seems obvious: teachers who still feel anxious and hurt cannot be expected to devote their full attention to the students. Holland even went so far as to say that teachers may still have reason to fear for their jobs: “Those teachers who do not reach the required proficiency level, through whatever process they agree on, could be terminated. So it’s really a kind of delay from what they tried to do in a compressed period of time last year.”

But Gallo, for one, believes the necessary healing has occurred—particularly during the first of two teachers’ professional development weeks. She said teachers have put the worst of last spring’s bitterness behind them and that many teachers are excited by the changes taking place. If anything, she said, “We’re proving exactly what we set out to prove when we first met with the union in February: that the teachers were 100 percent behind the transformation. It wasn’t until the official union discussion took place that we lost ground. And that is just unfortunate.”

When asked whether she believes President Obama’s education reforms came at the right time for Central Falls, Gallo responded: “We have an urgent responsibility, and [not] enough people are thinking because in a very short time, we’re going to be relying on this next generation. If we’re failing over 50 percent of them, we’re in big trouble.”

Erin Schikowski B’11.5 is all about the tough-love.