CENTRAL FALLS, R.I. – Ashley Delgado graduated from one of Rhode Island's worst-performing high schools and wanted to go to college — if only she could get there.
When Delgado's parents could not take her to visit Lesley University in Cambridge, Mass., her French teacher at Central Falls High School, Hope Evanoff, took her by train and helped her seek financial aid. Delgado, among the minority of students who graduate on time from troubled Central Falls, is now a sophomore at Lesley. Evanoff is among 93 high school instructors and staff who will be fired after the end of the school year in a desperate move to improve student performance at the school.
"Maybe we need to raise the bar, but we definitely don't have an issue that requires firing everyone," said Delgado, 19, who attended a candlelight vigil last week in support of Evanoff and other fired teachers.
The mass firing set off a national debate over school reform that reached from this small, impoverished city to Washington, where President Barack Obama called it an example of the need to hold failing schools accountable. But many of those most directly affected by the radical shake-up — students, parents and teachers — deplore the firings and complain no one has listened to their opinion.
One teacher defender is Marisol Vega, 39, who has five children in the school district, including three at the high school. All have earned academic honors, she said.
"If all these kids are doing so good, the teachers must be doing something good," said Vega, who volunteers at the middle school, teaching students the skills needed to run a business.
The firings were provoked by dismal student performance at the high school: In 2009, fewer than half of its students graduated within four years. And standardized tests last fall showed just 7 percent of eleventh graders passing math, 33 percent passing writing and 55 percent proficient in reading. The school educates just over 1,000 students.
Rhode Island's education commissioner identified the high school in January as one of the six worst in the state and ordered its leaders to pick from one of four reform plans. When talks with the teachers' union broke down, Central Falls School Superintendent Frances Gallo chose the most extreme option, to fire the staff. No more than half can return under federal rules.
The mass-firing tactic is used to turn around 20 to 30 schools in the U.S. annually, experts estimate.
Both sides say they want to negotiate to avert job losses, but the firings stand for now. Gallo said the average high school teacher in her district earns more than $72,000. Secondary teachers elsewhere in Rhode Island received an average of $61,830 in May 2008, according to the most recent federal data.
Delgado, now studying human services in college, said firing the teachers is deeply unfair since the city's students are different from those in the suburbs. More children live in poverty in Central Falls, a cramped city just one mile square, than anywhere else in Rhode Island. Just under half of residents in the city of nearly 19,000 people identify themselves as Hispanic, and the majority do not speak English at home.
Evanoff, who cried at the rally, said test scores have improved recently but still are an inadequate measure of student progress. She pointed out that some of her students work to support their families.
"For some of these kids ... they're the first person to be graduating from a high school, the first person that might be going to college in their family," Evanoff said. "I mean, you don't find that in the suburbs like you do here."
Evanoff said the biggest change the school needs is stability. It's been led by five principals in six years, she said.
Around the block, Shelby Avila walked with three friends to the rally. The 18-year-old senior, who has been accepted to Monroe College in New York to study criminal justice, said her high school could use more law-and-order.
At Avila's last school, she said, students who repeatedly showed up late received detentions. Not so in Central Falls.
"They should probably buckle down on the rules, maybe be a little more strict," Avila said.
The superintendent has said the high school might use instructors from Teach For America, which recruits from recent college graduates. Avila said brand-new teachers would miss out on the experience of older teachers leaving the school.
"They don't know what they're doing," Avila said. "So, usually when a new teacher comes in, they have experienced teachers to like look, lean back on."
Devin Guirales, 18, a senior, thought the firings were unfair, although he believes some teachers need to go. He praised business teacher Jane Bernardino for supporting him as he repeats his senior year to better prepare himself for college. Guirales has cerebral palsy and vision problems that slow his learning, he said.
Bernardino encouraged him to enroll in a four-year program at Johnson and Wales University in Providence, though not all teachers share her enthusiasm.
"How can I say it? They're just here as a job, not as their vocation," Guirales said. He was also upset that the school's superintendent never consulted with students on how to improve the high school. "She just wants to do what she wants."
If teachers are responsible for student performance, so are parents, said Beatriz Rosa, 32. Her daughter, 14-year-old Tashunna Perez, is a freshman. Rosa said it's not uncommon to see high schoolers wandering the downtown during the school day.
"Where are the parents?" she said. "I think the parents are half responsible for what's going on."
Others like student Victoria Salako, a 17-year-old senior, take a tougher line on the firings. She doesn't think all the teachers should lose their jobs, and said she hoped that ineffective teachers could be retrained or coaxed into retirement. Still, Salako said she and her friends have a right to a first-class education, even if it means parting ways with her favorite English teacher.
"It would hurt me," Salako said, but added, "I don't need to depend on a certain person. I can move forward with what she taught me."