Wednesday February 24, 2010

CENTRAL FALLS, R.I. (AP) -- The blue-and-white banner exclaiming "anticipation" on the front of Central Falls High School seems like a cruel joke for an institution so chronically troubled that its leaders decided to fire every teacher by year's end.

No more than half those instructors would be hired back under a federal option that has enraged the state's powerful teachers union, earned criticism from students, and brought praise from U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan and some parents.

The mass firings were approved by the school district's board of trustees Tuesday night after talks failed between Superintendent Frances Gallo and the local teachers union over implementing changes, including offering more after-school tutoring and a longer school day. The teachers say they want more pay for the additional work.

"If it's only an hour or two, I think teachers can afford to do that," said Robert Rivera, 40, who worries about sending his 13-year-old daughter to the troubled high school next year. He dropped out of school as a teenager and works more than 60 hours a week as an appliance repairman.

He's determined his daughter will go to college, although he sometimes feels her teachers have a nonchalant attitude when he seeks help.

"I just feel like maybe they're not putting in the effort," he said.

The shake-up comes as Rhode Island's new education commissioner, Deborah Gist, pushes the state to compete for millions of dollars in federal funding to reform the worst 5 percent of its schools, including in Central Falls. State law requires schools to warn teachers by March 1 if their jobs are in jeopardy for the following school year.

To get the money, schools must choose one of four paths set under federal law, including mass firings. Gallo has said she initially hope to avoid layoffs by adopting a plan that would have lengthened the school day and required teachers to get additional training and offer more after-school tutoring.

The U.S. Department of Education does not play a role in deciding which model schools choose and did not know Wednesday whether Central Falls was the first to opt to get rid of its teachers, said Sandra Abrevaya, a department spokeswoman.

The decision won praise from Republican Gov. Don Carcieri, a former math teacher who supports Gist.

"We can no longer stand by as our schools underperform," Carcieri said in a written statement. "While we have some excellent individual teachers, our students continue to be held back by a lack of a quality education and by union leadership that puts their self-interests above the interests of the students."

Leaders from the local teachers union did not respond to repeated requests for comment.

Central Falls High School has long been one of the worst-performing in Rhode Island. Just 7 percent of 11th graders tested in the fall were proficient in math. Only 33 percent were proficient in writing, and just 55 percent were proficient in reading. In 2008, just 52 percent of students graduated within four years and 30 percent dropped out.

More children live in poverty in Central Falls, a city of just 1 square mile, than anywhere else in Rhode Island. Until recently, one of the city's few growth industries was a quasi-public jail.

Shantel Joseph, 42, who lives just a block from the high school, was uncertain when asked whether her 16-year-old son would graduate.

"He might," she said, noting that he earns mostly Cs and Ds on his report card and appears to be assigned little homework. Still, she opposed mass firings in a city where unemployment stands at 13.8 percent.

"It's a bad idea, because I know they need a job," said Joseph, a part-time worker who is seeking more hours. "They need to work. Maybe they should talk to the teachers."

During a rainstorm Wednesday, four boys sprinted from a side door on the high school Wednesday, then ran down a driveway. One of them, Christian Manco, 15, said there was a walkout of students in support of their teachers.

"Honestly, I think it's a bad idea," he said. "The school wants them to work more hours for no extra pay."

His friend, Patrick Shirt, 15, stuck up for the school -- especially after he advanced from freshman to sophomore year despite having switched schools and dropped out for a portion of the year.

"I felt kind of happy because I didn't have to go to summer school," he said. "They still passed me."

Negotiations bogged down when officials for the teachers' union asked for more pay if they were going to be doing more work at the school. It remains unclear whether a compromise might emerge, and a phone message left with Gallo was not returned.

Gist, the education commissioner, said Wednesday that it's not a negotiation, and that she's awaiting more detailed plans from the superintendent. She doubts the superintendent will consider another path and said Rhode Island cannot tolerate a school at which less than half of students graduate.

"Those are just numbers that are not sustainable for a community," Gist said. "In today's economy, young people who are leaving high school without a diploma are going to struggle throughout their life."

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Associated Press writer Michelle R. Smith in Providence contributed to this report.