CENTRAL FALLS, R.I. – Teachers 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 Central Falls High School — where just 7 percent of 11th-graders tested last year were proficient in math — 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.
Education Commissioner Deborah Gist acknowledged the obstacles facing students in Rhode Island's smallest and poorest city.
"They're movable," Gist said. "We can push past them, we can climb over them, we can climb under them."
Before school started on Wednesday, some juniors attended a math boot camp to help them prepare for October's tests and school leaders visited the homes of incoming freshmen. The administration is also reaching out to recent dropouts and others who have been out of school to help encourage them to return, Superintendent Fran Gallo said.
"We want children back, and we'll find paths for them, multiple pathways, whatever it might take to work for our students, we're committed to," Gallo said. "I think that kind of public commitment has never been clearly defined, clearly hasn't been put out there in a transparent way."
Several students this week said the mass firings were unnecessary and that teachers were unfairly scapegoated for problems beyond their control. Central Falls, a cramped city just a square mile in size, has budget problems so severe that this summer it was placed under the supervision of a state-appointed receiver.
More children live in poverty in Central Falls than anywhere else in Rhode Island. The student population in this heavily Hispanic city is transient, and many families say they do not speak English at home.
"Some kids want to come here and actually go to school and work and everything," said junior Angela Collazo, 16. "But some kids don't." She added that students would have benefited more from extra tutoring than having new teachers.
The firings last February came after the state identified the high school as one of Rhode Island's worst and ordered improvements. When reforms talks between Gallo and the teachers' union broke down, the entire staff was issued termination notices — one of four reform options outlined in federal guidelines for chronically failing schools.
Under that model, no more than half the teachers could be rehired.
Teachers and students protested the firings, though the plan was applauded by U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan. President Barack Obama, in a March education speech, singled out Central Falls as an example of accountability for poor performance.
"If a school continues to fail its students year after year after year, if it doesn't show any sign of improvement, then there's got to be a sense of accountability," Obama said. "And that's what happened in Rhode Island last week."
The teachers got their jobs back in May after agreeing to similar terms they had previously resisted.
There's plenty of work to be done, both to raise performance and soothe lingering bruised feelings.
Though the union and administration struck a unified tone in announcing the new agreement, many teachers remain apprehensive and need to rebuild trust lost during the acrimonious dispute, said Jane Sessums, president of the local teachers' union. Fewer than 10 decided not to return.
"Partly it's the way they were treated and everything that happened last year," Sessums said of the overall mood of the teachers. "Their job security, that trust factor, that's really important in any teacher-administrator relationship. I don't know if they felt as if there was a lot of collaborating going forward up to this point."
Susan Vollucci, a visual arts teacher who was among the dozens of staff members to be fired and rehired, said she is hopeful the changes would lead to progress. But she said time would tell.
"If we could keep the kids for four years, from 9th grade to 12th grade, they would all pass the test. We don't," Vollucci said. "They come here, then they go to the Dominican Republic, they go to Woonsocket, they go to Providence, and they bounce around, so we can never gather the skills on a consistent year-to-year basis."
Richard Kinslow, an English teacher at Central Falls for 21 years, said the entire episode was unsettling. He said he felt insulted and embarrassed by the negative attention, lampooned in the media and fodder for critical blogs.
But he proudly shows off a recent postcard from a student who graduated a decade ago as a reminder of the good work he believes he does.
"It was hurtful," Kinslow said, "but it's time to move on."