A new mess at Central Falls High in Rhode Island
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.
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| 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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