Saturday, March 06, 2010

RI: Teacher firings ripple past Central Falls’ border

Inside the front door to Central Falls High School, across the street from a boarded-up building, an archway is adorned with an unambiguous boast: “Through these halls pass the world’s best faculty and students.’’

It is a motto that rings false for the local school board, which recently voted to fire all of the school’s staff in a stunning move that made Central Falls a lightning rod in the polarizing debate over improving the country’s education system.

Even President Obama weighed in, holding up the Feb. 23 vote to fire all 93 teachers, administrators, and support staff as a painful but potentially necessary move.

“It was one thing when a rival town said something bad about your school,’’ said JoAnn Boss, a Spanish teacher at Central Falls High and a 1982 graduate. “But to have the president say something, it’s really been a crushing blow to the kids. It’s a devastating time for them.’’

The battle taking place in Rhode Island has resonated in Massachusetts, where state and local education leaders recently received legislative approval to take more drastic measures to improve schools, including forcing teachers to reapply for their jobs. Massachusetts officials are expected to release a list today of about three dozen underperforming schools.

Central Falls Superintendent Frances Gallo recommended the firings after teachers did not agree on issues of extra work and pay related to a state-mandated overhaul. “Somebody has to do this for the children,’’ said Gallo, who has led the district for three years. “Their voice was not heard, and now they’re all being hurt by it.’’

Teachers, however, have accused Gallo of intransigence and union-busting after the state demanded that the six worst-performing schools in Rhode Island, including Central Falls High, be overhauled. Faculty members will continue to teach for the rest of the school year and can reapply for their jobs, but no more than 50 percent can be rehired under state guidelines.

The teachers union offered a counterproposal Tuesday that moves toward Gallo’s conditions, including a longer workday. In response, Gallo has agreed to resume negotiations. However, the superintendent said last night, the decision to fire teachers will not change unless an agreement is reached.

In Central Falls, a largely Hispanic city north of Providence where 19,000 people are squeezed into 1.3 square miles, the mill work vanished long ago, only 48 percent of high schoolers graduate in four years, and more than a quarter of its families live below the poverty level. Only 7 percent of 11th graders reached proficiency in math.

Boarded-up tenements are common, the main park is marred by X-rated and other offensive graffiti, and many of the narrow, crowded streets in the state’s smallest and poorest city are riddled with potholes. But it’s also a place with an astonishing variety of ethnic influences, including restaurants with roots in Mexico, Cape Verde, Cuba, Colombia, Venezuela, and the Dominican Republic.....

To Gallo, who has been an educator for nearly 40 years, the students and not the time clock are the paramount consideration in a district that has been under state financial control since 1991. “When I came here, they asked me to begin a reform effort to change a failing system,’’ Gallo said. “Those who constantly settle for mediocrity or less - that’s the difficulty, and we must constantly strive for better.’’

Although poverty plays a role in poor performance, Gallo said, she separates what occurs in the “safe haven’’ of the classroom. “It’s about attitude from everyone, parents, children, teachers, custodians, everyone,’’ Gallo said. “I’ll never give up. It’s a we-can-make-it attitude. Isn’t that the old American dream? Put on your boots and get marching.’’

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Great Moments in Higher Education

"San Francisco high school students, just months out of middle school, can start earning San Francisco State college credit this fall through a ninth-grade ethnic studies course," reports the San Francisco Chronicle. Apparently this is not a joke:
The program is designed for students who might not otherwise be considering college as an option, said Jacob Perea, dean of the School of Education, who runs the Step to College program at San Francisco State.

"We're not really looking for the 4.4 (grade point average) students," he said. "We're looking for the 2.1 or 2.2 students."

Students cannot fail the class. They either receive a "pass" grade or are withdrawn from the course if it appears they cannot pass, Perea said.

"All we do is give them an opportunity," he said. "I do believe that (the ethnic studies) course is a course set up so the kids will come out of there with the kind of information that a freshman here taking an ethnic studies course will have."

The content of the courses offered in the Step to College program are reviewed by CSU faculty to ensure that they're equal to any offered at the university.

What does it tell you about the California State University system that its classes are equal to those offered high school freshmen?

On a more serious note, however, this may suggest a way out of California's budget mess: Why not abolish high schools, fire all their unionized teachers, and send kids straight from middle school to CSU?


California disqualified from receiving federal school funds

California was disqualified Thursday from receiving hundreds of millions of dollars in school reform funds when federal education leaders announced that 15 other states and Washington, D.C., are in the running for billions in federal grants. The money at stake is the first round of $4.35 billion that the Obama administration plans to give states to spur reforms. California officials plan to apply for a second round of funding but were unsure exactly how to improve their chances.

To make California a contender for the Race to the Top program, politicians rewrote laws, giving parents the ability to demand aggressive changes at struggling schools and allowing districts to link teacher evaluations to test scores.

The competition was set up to encourage states to take on reforms supported by the Obama administration. These included lifting caps on charter schools, using data to track the progress of students and teachers, and shutting down or replacing the staff at low-performing campuses.

Federal officials would not say why California or any other state fell short. But according to federal guidelines, California would have lost points because fewer than half of the state's school districts and unions agreed to a package of reforms signed into law in January.

Even though California could have received up to $700 million, some teachers union leaders sounded slightly relieved. They had opposed, for example, basing evaluations on standardized tests they say are flawed. "There wasn't a great deal of support," said Marty Hittelman, president of the California Federation of Teachers. "I won't say that I'm in sorrow of California losing it."

Others who had pushed hard for the legislation, including Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and state Sen. Gloria Romero (D-Los Angeles), expressed disappointment. "While the reforms we passed did move our state forward, they did not go far enough because other states were more competitive," Schwarzenegger said.

State officials had not planned exactly how to use the money, but California's exclusion is another financial blow in a state confronting a continuing multibillion-dollar budget crisis. School districts up and down the state are confronting teacher layoffs, increased class sizes and fewer electives; protests against budget cuts were held on campuses throughout the state Thursday.

The money would have particularly helped the Los Angeles Unified School District, the nation's second-largest system. Because many other districts chose to sit out the competition, some analysts anticipated a share for L.A. Unified as large as $100 million. Those funds could not have been applied directly to the district's $640-million deficit -- the money had to be used for specific reform efforts -- but they would have helped significantly.

Several of the finalists lack collective bargaining rights for teachers, such as South Carolina and Louisiana. And in Kentucky, all school districts signed on. In a news briefing Thursday morning, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said that states without collective bargaining rights for teachers were not given special treatment.

Applicants' ability to execute favored reforms carried weight, said officials close to the decision-making process who requested anonymity because they were not authorized to speak publicly.

So a state such as Louisiana, which converted more than half of New Orleans' schools to charters in the wake of Hurricane Katrina in 2005, would presumably have an advantage. Louisiana is "doing so many of these things that Race to the Top is asking schools and school districts to do," said Paul Vallas, superintendent of the Recovery School District in New Orleans. "Our actions are speaking as loud as our words."

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