School chief fires every teacher at town’s only high school

The school superintendent in Central Falls, R.I., has moved to fire all 74 teachers at the town’s only high school, after their union refused to accept her demands.

School chief Frances Gallo had demanded that teachers agree to a “transformation plan” that included lengthening the school day, requiring teachers to attend weekly 90-minute meetings after school, and having them be evaluated by “third-party” evaluators. In addition, Gallo sought to mandate duties teachers say they are already performing on their own initiative: tutoring students before and after school, and eating lunch with students. The superintendent says these steps are necessary to remedy the school’s low test scores and graduation rates. She did not offer the teachers additional pay for most of the added duties.

The Central Falls Teachers Union, part of the Rhode Island Federation of Teachers, says it agreed with the transformation concept but objected to the superintendent’s “take it or leave it” approach. The teachers said they wanted input on the content as well as the compensation for the additional time worked, and raised questions about the outside evaluators.

The superintendent said she will issue termination notices later this month. The school district’s Board of Trustees will vote on the firings Feb. 23. Gallo said the teachers could reapply for their jobs, but with different job descriptions.

Last month State Education Commissioner Deborah Gist named the school one of the worst in the state and presented four options. Gallo’s “transformation” plan was one. The others were: closing the school; inviting a charter program or company to run the school; or the “turnaround” model: replacing the principal and firing all teachers, rehiring no more than 50 percent. That’s the option Gallo has now moved to.

James Parisi, field representative for the Rhode Island Federation of Teachers, called the firings a “bargaining tactic” to get the union to agree to the superintendent’s terms. In fact, Parisi said, there has been a lot of reform at the school supported by the teachers. That has helped raise reading scores by 21 percent over the last two years, he noted. If there are teachers whose performance is below par, that can and should be dealt with, he said, but “there is no relation between mass firings of teachers and making schools better.”

Central Falls has charter elementary and middle schools, and Parisi and others believe the moves by Gallo and Grist are a “prelude” to turning the high school over to a charter operator. That is a trend promoted in U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan’s “Race to the Top” program. “There’s a lot of money to be made” in charter school operations, Parisi commented.

A packed meeting of the trustees last week drew an outpouring of support for the teachers from students and alumni.

Central Falls, a former mill town, is one of the state’s poorest.

This is the same town that gained notoriety in 2008 over its for-profit immigrant detention center, where an immigrant died after not receiving proper medical. A New York Times article in December 2008 noted that such prisons, for which the city received $2 or $3 per inmate, had a special attraction for poverty-stricken communities.

With an influx of immigrants in recent years, the town’s population is now majority Latino. Long-term local residents were among those imprisoned in the detention center after being swept up in federal immigration roundups. Together with a vicious anti-immigrant campaign in Rhode Island, backed by the Republican governor, the raids sowed a climate of fear that affected students at Central Falls High, the Times reported in 2008.

“At Central Falls High School, some students stopped coming to class because their families had gone into hiding, said Margie Cruz, a school-home liaison: ‘The child was born here, the child is legal. But the family has to hide because the father will be deported.

‘I’ve seen students stopped for a traffic violation and the whole family got deported,’ she added. ‘Children that were here for years. I watched them grow up.'”

Mass firing of their teachers seems like yet another demoralizing message for these teenagers.

Updated. An earlier version of this article had an incorrect date for the Board of Trustees vote.

Photo: Central Falls High School.



Susan Webb
Susan Webb

Susan Webb is a retired co-editor of People's World. She has written on a range of topics both international - the Iraq war, World Social Forums in Brazil and India, the Israel-Palestinian conflict and controversy over the U.S. role in Okinawa - and domestic - including the meaning of socialism for Americans, attacks on Planned Parenthood, the U.S. as top weapons merchant, and more. Previously she taught English as a second language and did a variety of other jobs to pay the bills. She has lived in six states, and is all about motherhood, art, nature and apple pie.