PROVIDENCE, R.I. - Ninety-three Central Falls, R.I., teachers and school professionals got their jobs back after they overwhelmingly ratified an agreement with the school superintendent this month. The agreement came after intense talks by the two sides, with active help from the state's two U.S. senators, Jack Reed and Sheldon Whitehouse, both Democrats, American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten, and a federal mediator.
Tiny, impoverished blue-collar Central Falls drew national notoriety in February when School Superintendent Frances Gallo and the local school board fired all 93 teachers and professional staff at the town's only high school. It was an implementation of U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan's draconian "turnaround model" for low-performing schools. That model specifies replacing the principal and at least 50 percent of the school's staff.
In the agreement announced May 17, news reports suggest, the teachers largely agreed to changes that Gallo had demanded before the mass firings. But many details about the changes and how they will actually play out in practice will likely not be clear until the new school year gets under way this fall.
The Central Falls Teachers Union, part of the Rhode Island Federation of Teachers, had said all along that it agreed with the need to transform the school to improve student performance, but objected to the superintendent's "take it or leave it" approach.
According to reports in the Providence Journal, the agreement includes lengthening the school day by 25 minutes, and teachers are also required to provide one hour of before- or after-school tutoring weekly, eat lunch with students once a week, do 90 minutes a week of common planning after school, and participate in one to two weeks of professional development each summer. A new principal will be hired and will have authority to assign teachers based on experience as well as seniority. During the coming school year an outside evaluator will assess teacher performance and could recommend replacement of some teachers for the following year. The teachers will receive additional pay for some of the added hours of work and the summer professional development.
As part of the pact, the union said it would withdraw unfair labor practices complaints it had filed against the school district.
The agreement drew a variety of reactions.
In the right-wing National Review, Frederick Hess of the anti-union American Enterprise Institute apparently felt a need to reassure his readers that the superintendent's retraction of the mass firings was not a return to "powder puff mangement." Hess spun the agreement as an example of "how stiff-spined management is supposed to work - by forcing unions and other claimants to come to their senses."
However AFT President Weingarten emphasized the importance of the collective bargaining process. "The events of the past few months have shown the need for a collaborative approach to school improvement, especially when the stakes are high and real transformation is needed, as is the case at Central Falls High School," she said in a statement.
The Central Falls Teachers Union, Weingarten said, had sought to advance children's needs in the negotiations. "Teachers know the realities in our schools today, and - if they are given the right tools and conditions, are backed by a sense of shared responsibility and have a real voice in the process - they can deliver on this promise," she said. "We have never believed that mass firing is a vehicle to school improvement."
Weingarten thanked Senators Reed and Whitehouse and federal mediators, as well as the outpouring of support from labor, the community, students and parents. Her remarks were evidently directed in part at President Obama and Education Secretary Duncan, who angered many public education advocates by backing the mass firings in February.
Valerie Strauss, who writes the Washington Post's "The Answer Sheet" education blog, commented, "What do you think would have happened if Obama and Duncan had not taken sides when the teachers were first fired, and instead had urged the opposing sides to work harder to reach a better solution?
"I think it is fair to assume that the negotiations would have reached success a lot sooner, sparing the Central Falls community a lot of grief.
"Let's hope this is a lesson not just for the folks in Central Falls, but in Washington D.C. as well."
Photo: PW/Susan Webb