Teachers at a Rhode Island school who were fired and ultimately rehired in a dispute that focused national debate over education reform have returned to their classrooms amid hopes that changes they agreed to will help improve student performance at their persistently troubled high school.
The changes at the 1,000-student Central Falls High School—where just 7 percent of 11th graders tested last year were proficient in mathematics—include a longer school day, more rigorous teacher evaluations, and flexible schedules to provide more classes for struggling students. Teachers are also required to participate in more days of professional development.
State Education Commissioner Deborah Gist acknowledged the obstacles facing students in Rhode Island’s smallest and poorest city. “They’re movable,” Ms. Gist said. “We can push past them, we can climb over them, we can climb under them.”
The firings in February came after the state identified the high school in this cramped city just a square mile in size as one of Rhode Island’s worst and ordered improvements. When reform talks between Ms. Gallo and the teachers’ union broke down, the entire staff was issued termination notices, one of four options outlined in federal guidelines for chronically failing schools.
Teachers and students protested the firings, though the plan was applauded by U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan. President Barack Obama, in a speech, singled out Central Falls as an example of accountability for poor performance. (“Mass-Firing Plan in R.I. Sparks Debate on Turnarounds,” March 10, 2010.)
The teachers got their jobs back in May after agreeing to terms they had previously resisted, though many remain apprehensive, said Jane Sessums, the president of the local teachers’ union, an American Federation of Teachers affiliate. Fewer than 10 decided not to return.
“Their job security, that trust factor, that’s really important in any teacher-administrator relationship,” Ms. Sessums said of the overall mood of the teachers. “I don’t know if they felt as if there was a lot of collaborating going forward up to this point.”
A version of this article appeared in the September 15, 2010 edition of Education Week as Hope, Caution Vie at R.I. High School