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Posted at 5:00 AM ET, 11/23/2010

A new mess at Central Falls High in Rhode Island

By Valerie Strauss

Things aren’t going well at Central Falls High, the Rhode Island school that became famous early this year when all of the teachers were fired and President Obama praised the “accountability” move.

He didn’t say anything when an agreement was reached between Central Falls Schools District Superintendent Fran Gallo and the teachers union to rehire all the teachers and replace the principal with two co-principals as part of a state-mandated “turnaround” strategy because of a history of low standardized test scores and a high dropout rate.

(To be fair, neither did Education Secretary Arne Duncan, who had earlier said that Gallo was “showing courage and doing the right thing for kids.” And neither of them uttered a peep when it was revealed that one of the new principals Gallo hired included on his resumé a claim that math scores at his former school were much higher than they turned out to be. But I digress.)

Fast forward to now, a few months into the new school administration. Teachers and others report discipline, attendance and morale problems that have left the 840-student school seriously troubled in Rhode Island’s poorest city.

About half a dozen teachers have been out on extended medical leave -- including an Advanced Placement English class -- and the administration has had trouble covering the classes, with officials frequently getting on the loudspeaker to ask teachers to volunteer their time. (Gallo had said earlier this year that she got more than 700 applications for teaching jobs at Central Falls; you'd think she might have a pool to choose from to fill the open spots.)

A new disciplinary program that stressed leniency has failed to rein in dozens of students who caused serious disruptions; kids who come to school or class late, or who have even threatened teachers, received minimal or no punishment, said a number of teachers, who spoke on the condition of anonymity out of fear of retaliation. Some teachers have reported being assaulted by students.

Teachers have made hundreds of referrals of students for disciplinary measures, but, some teachers said, the administration does little if anything in the way of punishment.

After first denying any problem, school officials have said part of the program would be reviewed. This admission occurred after a meeting with the Central Falls police chief, Capt. Col. Joseph Moran III, who is also head of the Rhode Island Police Chiefs’ Association.

Some teachers also said they are some of their colleagues have been threatened and/or disciplined by administrators for merely disagreeing with policy, and that they believe the administrators are using some of the cameras installed in the school to monitor them.

“In all of my 20 plus years here, I haven’t seen anything like it,” one of the teachers said.

State and district schools officials say teachers are exaggerating. They say the biggest problem are those teachers and staff members -- they didn’t say how many -- who do not want to go along with the new administration.

The co-principals, Sonn Sam and Evelyn Cosme Jones, did not return phone calls.

Rhode Island’s acclaimed education commissioner, Deborah Gist, told me she had visited the school recently and found the students to be well-behaved and "wanting to learn" but some teachers not prepared to teach their classes.

When I asked about the discipline issue, citing the police chief, she responded that the chief had grown up in Central Falls with some of the teachers and was very close to them. Moran, who attended Central Falls and sent his children there, said the discipline problems about which teachers have complained are real.

The administration’s take on the situation was clear in minutes to the Oct. 21 meeting of the state Board of Regents. Gist’s representative, Jennifer Smith, gave a report summed up this way in the minutes:

“Non-instructional issues draw attention away from pedagogy and teaching. Specific examples: teacher absenteeism – 224 absences between 9/1 and 10/8, (in cases where there are excessive absences) teachers choosing not to provide coverage for students, and most significantly, accusations of significant student misconduct 'anonymously' reported to local media. This is extremely concerning. Visits and observations at the school do not reveal that students are out of control, demonstrating threatening behavior or overly aggressive to one another, or to staff. Weekly visits from Transformation Office staff do not evidence a rationale for the excessive number of discipline referrals.”

Teachers said this is a misrepresentation.

The 224 absences, they said, include six teachers out on extended leave (which would account for more than 160 of those days) as well as professional development days for some teachers.

The accusation that teachers choose “not to provide coverage for students” is unfair, they said, because they are asked to give up their own planning times or lunch to cover.

Gallo said in an initial e-mail that only two teachers were out on extended sick leave, and neither taught an AP classes. In a second email, she wrote:

“The high school has five teachers out on long term illnesses. At the time of your initial inquiry all but two were replaced by long term certified substitutes in the respective content areas. Several other teachers call in absent day to day. Substitutes are placed into classroom as swiftly as possible. One AP class was being covered day to day by substitutes. Once we were notified of the long term nature of the absence, a fully certified long term substitute was assigned to that class.”

Moran said the part in the minutes about students not being out of control was “inaccurate,” and he told that to school officials at a recent meeting. He suggested to school officials that they segregate the repeat disciplinary offenders from the rest of the student population.

“You know as well as I do that if you have a strong group of individuals and there are no consequences for their behavior, that small group becomes bigger and bigger by the day and week,” he said. "...We have to worry about teachers worrying about whether they are safe."

Police have arrested a handful of students and at least two teachers have filed assault charges against students, yet school officials just inexplicably removed the police officer that had been assigned to the high school and send her to a middle school, the local station WRNI reported.

Gallo wrote to me in her second email:

“Commissioner Gist’s description of the discipline climate at the school is correct. The disciplinary issues we see are nothing more than the typical types of issues found in most urban high schools. These cause minimal disruptions. The vast majority of our students are polite, sensitive young men and women. The cause of the disciplinary review is the complaint by some faculty that suspensions should be served out of the building, not in school. In an effort to respond to this request by some faculty, we are reviewing possible options, including Saturday school and late afternoon detentions where missed classes can be recovered. To describe the current review as a global review undertaken to address a systemic failure of the disciplinary system would be extremely misleading to your readers.”

Teachers said that the co-principals are not responsive to their problems, and take a more active role in making sure students are behaving when top schools officials visit.

George McLaughlin, who had been a longtime counselor at Central Falls until this year, when he moved, said:

“I get at least two calls per week from teachers still at CFHS asking for advice in how to deal with stress, danger (the kids are completely out of control--teachers and students are being attacked verbally and even physically, regularly) and persecution.”

Administration officials say things are fine, but this sounds anything but fine to me.

-0-

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By Valerie Strauss  | November 23, 2010; 5:00 AM ET
Categories:  School turnarounds/reform  | Tags:  arne duncan, central falls, central falls high school, president obama, school reform, school transformation, school turnaround, teachers  
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Comments

This situation is disgusting. Either someone has been threatened or assaulted or they haven't been. It is amazing to me that Gist actually discounts what the local police chief is alleging. What in the heck is that? Isn't it his job to ascertain what is dangerous or represents a safety issue?

Here's my prediction: The mess at Central Falls will shake out the way it did in Philadelphia when our illustrious (eye roll) leader Paul Vallas continually blamed teachers and principals for *real* safety issues.

*Someone is going to get hurt badly.*

In Philadelphia, the district sat on a safety report they commissioned from Ellen Ceisler Green for more than year because it was so bad. Guess what? The real story came out when veteran teacher Frank Burd was asaulted by two students in school and got his neck broken.

The floodgates opened and the district had to admit that, yes, many students in public schools behaved in ways that constituted clearly criminal conduct. There are still problems and our current Superintendant Ackerman has shown some serious poor judgement in investigating the violence against Asian students at S. Philly HS. However, I do believe our schools are generally safer than they were under Vallas. He is a hack who swept problems under the rug as long as he could.

Posted by: Nikki1231 | November 23, 2010 6:13 AM | Report abuse

It really doesn't matter what job or profession you are involved with anymore. Whether it be teachers or blue-collar assembly line workers, and especially if you are unionized, the assault on the working class by the corporate class continues. I lump teachers into this category because in most areas of the country, with he possible exception of the high-cost coastal ares, teachers are so underpaid for the work they do, the risks they take and the hours they put in. I t doesn't matter whether one teaches or one manufactures, or whether the boss is known as management or administration, safety issues are ignored and more is expected for less. Anyone daring to step forward to speak about issues on the job is branded as a troublemaker, a liar, and as a person who is not fit to hold the job. Yes, the schools nationwide have many problems and a lot of issues need to be addressed. One of the biggest problems that needs to be addressed though is the respect issue as it pertains to teachers, and I'm not talking so much about students and parents (still a problem) as I am about presidents, governors, and cabinet secretaries who always say they are advocating for the teachers when in fact they are scapegoating them, going for the easiest possible victim, much in the same manner that management has always had the perfect foil with the blue-collar worker.Perhaps the time has come for the "blue-collars" and classroom teachers to team up, forming their own version of the "tea-party".

Posted by: rtinindiana | November 23, 2010 7:23 AM | Report abuse

it sounds like a magnified version of what is happening at Hardy middle school in DC after Chancellor Rhee removed its successful, respected principal - and the Hardy kids were doing well academically and had previously been well behaved.

Posted by: efavorite | November 23, 2010 7:49 AM | Report abuse

Adults have no one to blame but themselves and the kids are failing as consequences. Before it was an academic behavior problem. Now it overflowed the banks to personal behavior and a deterrent to learning.

Firing all the teachers sent a strong message to kids that their teachers were incapable. If the best teachers were grouped with others, then who should the student trust? If parents weren't involved, who should they trust?

Dinner conversations (if there are conversations) probably circle around how bad teachers are, how they failed so much, and they MUST be the cause. Children hear this and it moves from perception to fact in the mind of the children. Mix all that with news, gossip, and television and guess what the mixture looks like! DISCONTENT!

We must move our children back to trusting teachers, verified and validated by parental involvement, and a rallying for learning. If we don't do at least those three things, then start pulling your children from school and give them training on how to say "Would you like fries with that?"

Posted by: jbeeler | November 23, 2010 7:51 AM | Report abuse

Typical - no one wants to believe the teachers, except for Valerie Strauss. I don't know if/when this madness will end, but I think this country is already sliding into a sinkhole from which it will not recover.

Posted by: peonteacher | November 23, 2010 9:04 AM | Report abuse

What a toxic situation. Maybe an impartial third party ought to review the video captured by the security cameras to see whether the students are behaving like the administrators claim they are or like the teachers say they are....

Posted by: passepartout | November 23, 2010 9:40 AM | Report abuse

Jbeeler, quite honestly, I'm beginning to think a career saying "would you like fries with that?" beats my current career.

Posted by: peonteacher | November 23, 2010 10:44 AM | Report abuse

While I share the frustration with the administration and "reformers" who applauded the undermining, slashing, and burning of Central Falls, I am troubled by the discipline discussion here. Of course teachers and students must be safe in school, but the way to maintain safety is not to "crack down" on students as this post seems to suggest. Research from many sources, including the American Psychology Association, has shown that harsh discipline practices harm youth and do not make schools safer.

I think we can all agree that what Central Falls, and all other schools, need is a safe and supportive school environment that is conducive to trust between students, teachers, and administrators. Treating students as the "dangerous enemy" simply is not the way to do make that happen. It is this kind of thinking that has built and sustained the school-to-prison pipeline in this country.

A major problem with the administration's approach to turnarounds has been a myopic focus on testing and "achievement" to the exclusion of school culture. There are proven ways to change school culture, from restorative justice to positive behavior supports. We need to prioritize those tools rather than firing teachers and creating testing factories.

For more on this, check out Advancement Project's recent report: Test, Punish, and Push Out: http://www.advancementproject.org/digital-library/publications/test-punish-and-push-out-how-zero-tolerance-and-high-stakes-testing-fu

Posted by: badschiraldi | November 23, 2010 10:52 AM | Report abuse

Did anyone really think education would improve at this school after the way teachers were treated? Hopefully many of them are applying elsewhere and advising their best students (children, friends, neighbors, relatives) to do the same.

My guess is that once the effects of this recession are over, this school will have a terrible time hiring a teacher of any kind, much less "highly qualified." Ha.

As an aside, I'm glad to see teachers filing complaints with the police department, instead of administration. Hopefully they'll remember to sue for damages if they are assaulted.

Teachers don't give up their civil rights at the schoolhouse door.

Posted by: Linda/RetiredTeacher | November 23, 2010 12:40 PM | Report abuse

Headline: School "reform" fails.
Headline: Dog bites mailman.

Unbelievable.

Posted by: mcstowy | November 23, 2010 12:54 PM | Report abuse

Why wouldn't struggling high school students turn on their teachers who have been deemed failures by everyone from the school board to the President himself?

If students want to push back against stricter policies on both academics and discipline, they will lash out at the enforcers of those policies-the teachers. It is the teachers who will assign consequences for tardiness, no homework, coarse language, etc.

I am not surprised by this turn of events, and it should give the administration pause, because when you go after the teachers, you diminish their authority over the very students you want them to educate.

Martha Infante
NBC Teacher
Los Angeles

Posted by: avalonsensei | November 23, 2010 1:14 PM | Report abuse

I have a suggestion: send Arne Duncan and Bill Gates in and let them serve as a substitute teachers at Central Falls High School!

Posted by: lacy4 | November 23, 2010 2:23 PM | Report abuse

So what do Obama and Duncan say to this? Are they going to dismiss it also.

Posted by: jlp19 | November 23, 2010 3:10 PM | Report abuse

@badschiraldi-

This is not about positive behavior practices that may be effective or ineffective. This is about a school district undermining consequences for student behavior that apparently rises to the level of a criminal complaint.

The Central Falls district wants to play down the safety issues because it reflects poorly on the administration. That's the bottom line. School climate can never improve when there is no recognition of the problem.

Posted by: Nikki1231 | November 23, 2010 4:42 PM | Report abuse

Valerie Strauss I’ve heard of you as a noted Education reported from the Washington Post. But, there must be more truth to this. There has to be a mess in CFSH. Why would there not be? It is to be expected. The school has been in turmoil since 1991. Whatever change ANY administration will do will not come easy and will not happen in three moths. As with any change comes challenge. People do not like change, this includes teachers, they are human. With change, challenge is expected, sabotagers and disbelievers are expected and this articles primary sources are just that. CFHS serves the smallest and poorest community in the state. During his time in CFHS George's primary way to get those kids attention while his time as an English teacher then turn guidance counselor was to “instill the fear of god” in them. He had signs in his guidance office that read “Fear is Good”. Now this is a little ironic when you think about the violent students. How is it that in this Article "some teachers" report that the school is going crazy with discipline but that the 3 person administration team can then control all the danger and violence (from 850 kids) for a show day when the higher ups visit? So which is it? How bad is it? There is a story here, but not this.

Posted by: whatnow1922 | November 23, 2010 5:01 PM | Report abuse

Fear is good. It prevents evil from dominating goodness. And it prevents functionally illiterate impostors, with little or no experience in the classroom, who are made school administrators at places like Central Falls High School--like "whatnow1922"--from destroying good, faithful teachers and vulnerable students. In the end, the truth will prevail, because fear of those who are righteous on earth and above it. Those who have directed the demise of Central Falls HS and other similar schools throughout America in the name of reform--in New York, Chicago, Washington and LosAngeles are running out of lies and they are fearful of the truth. That's why fear is good.

Posted by: fearisgood | November 23, 2010 5:53 PM | Report abuse

Valerie:
Thank you for this article. The administrative response was to bring in Commissioner Gist to talk to a select group of students today. Each time a student offered a valid concern, Ms. Gist was quick to "blame the teachers." This Commissioner continues to belittle teachers at every turn. Is it any wonder that the CFHS students have little respect for teachers?

Whatnow1922 did not mention that it is the teachers who live under the banner "fear is good." The cameras are monitoring the adults in the building not the students. Have an opinion or idea that may be different...don't express it because the teacher may be "written up," have a disciplinary action or be put on "administrative leave" unless the teacher has the good fortunate to be a "friend" of or "close" to administrators.

The denial factor (cover up) of the administrators is evident by Gist's derogatory comments about the police chief! She's concerned because he might have grown up with some of the teachers...so his observations & experience mean nothing.

I hope the current DC mayor still has an opening for Ms. Gist somewhere on his staff.

Posted by: grace_antunes | November 23, 2010 6:50 PM | Report abuse

So what do Obama and Duncan say to this? Are they going to dismiss it also.

Posted by: jlp19 | November 23, 2010 3:10 PM | Report abuse

jlp19: Obama and his henchman, Arne Duncan, are responsible for the policies that led to this terrible situation. Rather than dealing with the realities of a very small (one high school) and very poor school district with a very large non-English speaking and transient population in a thoughtful systematic way, Duncan (at one time considered for superintendent of this district) and Obama cheered the dismissal of the staff as the most logical solution to the high drop out rate and low attendance.

Do some research by simply googling Central Falls HS.

Posted by: lacy41 | November 23, 2010 7:32 PM | Report abuse

I would like Ms. Strauss to investigate how the after school "professional development" time is being used The administration of the district/school insisted that this time was necessary to improve teacher effectiveness. An accounting of the time would illustrate a lack of planning on the part of the administration. Rather than model good instructional practice, too often nothing is planned out, or the facilitators/administrators show up late..in some cases, a half an hour, leaving the teachers waiting. Of course, using this professional development time to chaperone an after school pep rally will certainly reflect an increase in student achievement!

Posted by: cfinterestedbystander | November 23, 2010 8:38 PM | Report abuse

Providence Journal has a recent article with more background:
http://www.projo.com/education/content/central_falls_school_and_police_11-24-10_BGL3_v72.396821f.html

Highlights:

The incident highlights a growing divide between school officials, on the one hand, who are trying to institute a new, less-punitive approach to discipline, and some teachers and the police, who adhere to a more old-fashioned philosophy of penalties and consequences and separating troublesome students from their peers.
and

“We are trying to move from a system of punishment to a system of responsibility,” said Supt. Frances Gallo. “It takes time for kids to mature and look at themselves and analyze the consequences of their actions.”

Deputy Supt. Victor Capellan and co-principals Sonn Sam and Evelyn Cosme-Jones are trying to roll out a new discipline policy called “restorative practice.” The approach requires classroom teachers to try to defuse behavior problems in the classroom before involving administrators. Students with persistent behavior issues work with a team of specialists who encourage students to reflect on their actions and the effects of their behavior on others.

The school leaders closed the school’s in-house suspension room a few weeks ago, saying it was no longer working.

Capellan said in a previous interview that in retrospect, the school’s faculty and staff needed more training than the one day provided this summer. He recently hired two more behavioral specialists, recognizing that the discipline team needed more support. His team is also meeting with teachers and parents to fine-tune the new policy, a process they hope to complete in December.
++++++

Capellan, Gist and the principal and veeps sound like the unnamed DCPS officials who were astounded when told that suspensions would increase at the high school that was taken over.
These education reform clowns are severely lacking in understanding basic group dynamics.

Now not only do the teachers have to teach, they have to be counselors. What are these school admins doing, padding their rears and resumes?

Posted by: edlharris | November 23, 2010 11:02 PM | Report abuse

In my state if 50% of the teachers at a school want a charter, they can apply for it. Central Falls High probably has several teachers with excellent organizational skills. Perhaps they should turn their school into a charter, appoint one of their own as "head teacher" and run the school themselves. The teacher's union can help with details. This might solve most of the teachers' problems, as well as those of the students. Teacher-led schools already exist in Los Angeles, New York, Boston and other cities. When all the educational "reform" dust is settled, this is the change that we'll see.

As one of the posters above said, It's time for change. Real change.

Posted by: Linda/RetiredTeacher | November 23, 2010 11:57 PM | Report abuse

"The approach requires classroom teachers to try to defuse behavior problems in the classroom before involving administrators."

In other words, administrators don't want to do their job.

Posted by: jlp19 | November 24, 2010 3:32 PM | Report abuse

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