Central Falls teacher: Why I quit

A research scientist who became a science teacher at Rhode Island’s troubled Central Falls High, Dale Dearnley explains: Why I Resigned on GoLocalProv. A perennially low-scoring school, Central Falls fired — and then rehired — its teachers as part of a turnaround effort.

Her number one reason for leaving is “the absence of discipline and accountability.” The district approved a behavior system based on “restorative practices,” but failed to implement it consistently.

Chaos is the norm, interruption of education is consistent, and the environment is toxic.

Being sent to the “Restorative Room” is how students are held accountable for infractions from cutting class and disrupting lessons to threatening teachers and assault. I have heard from many students that they enjoy going to the Restorative Room because they can socialize with their friends, joke around with a so-called “behavior specialist, ” and their only academic responsibility is to complete a word search puzzle. If “restorative practices” were working, then students would not resort to extreme vulgarities and hate speech in response to simple directions and the routines of an orderly, productive classroom.

For five years, the high school has had no science curriculum, Dearnley writes.  Teachers were promised a chance to develop a curriculum. Instead, they get pre-packed science “kits ” from a contractor.

Teachers are “afraid to speak up because of fear of retribution,” she writes. When a student threatened to kill her, he was assigned to the Restorative Room for the remainder of the day. An administrator told her it wasn’t a police matter and reprimanded her for using the student’s full name in the school’s incident report.

Letting students get away with cursing and threatening teachers is a form of child neglect and abuse, Dearnley argues.

Making integration work

Is economic integration a feasible goal? By creating high-achieving schools in high-poverty areas, charter networks such as KIPP and Achievement First, derailed the debate on school segregation, writes Dana Goldstein. But Rhode Island is creating charter schools that mix urban and suburban students.

The Rhode Island Mayoral Academies (RIMA) model, authorized by state law in 2008, lets mayors of neighboring towns and cities create regional charter schools.

RIMA’s first school, Blackstone Valley Prep, is located in affluent Cumberland, but draws elementary and middle students from low-income Pawtucket and Central Falls as well as Lincoln, another well-off town. Fifty-five percent of the students are black and Latino, 65 percent are poor, and 43 percent are English Language Learners.

In its pedagogical methods, BVP is a traditional “no excuses ” charter, with uniforms, an extended learning day, and privately-funded extras, including free breakfast and a gorgeous, newly renovated building. Administrators and teachers greet students each morning with a handshake and eye contact, the kids are expected to line up and walk through the hallways in silence, and there are songs and chants to help the students memorize their multiplication tables and phonics principles. Standardized test gains and scores are impressive.

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BVP kindergartners and first-graders “get their wiggles out” after their daily breakfast and morning meeting.

The no-excuses model doesn’t always attract middle-class and affluent parents, Goldstein writes. But there are 299 Cumberland and Lincoln students signed up for BVP’s next lottery as well as 431 Pawtucket and Central Falls students. That should boost the percentage of middle-class students.

RIMA is awaiting approval of five new regional charter schools in a partnership between Providence and the town of Cranston.

Goldstein also visited troubled Central Falls High, a failing school in a failing  town. New leaders are trying to change the school culture, she writes, but it’s hard when the teachers are demoralized after last year’s mass firings. Discipline remains a problem.

“The kids, when they’re here, need to know this is a place of learning,” (math teacher Anthony) Kulla said. “Right now they don’t.”

Central Falls High students are predominantly low-income and Hispanic.

‘Turnaround’ school hit by teacher absenteeism

Teachers at at a low-performing Rhode Island high school were fired last year, then rehired when they agreed to reforms designed to turn Central Falls High around. But teacher absenteeism is high at the “turnaround” high school, reports the Providence Journal. “More than half of the high school’s 840 students didn’t receive a grade in one or more classes for the first quarter” because they missed so much instruction, reports the Journal.

Since the school year started Sept. 1, there has not been a single day when all of the 88 teachers at Central Falls High School have shown up for work.

On that first day, two teachers called in sick and a third took a personal day.

In addition, several teachers resigned after the start of the school year.  Administrators have struggled to hire replacements and substitutes.

Bitterness remains over the mass firing of all the school’s teachers in February, jobs that were eventually won back through a compromise agreement in May. In exchange for their jobs, the teachers agreed to a list of changes administrators said were necessary to turn around the school, which has among the lowest test scores and graduation rates in the state.

Some teachers resent the new requirements, which include tutoring and eating lunch with students each week, attending after-school training sessions and being observed by third-party evaluators.

Fourteen teachers were judged “unsatisfactory” by outside evaluators out of 71 who were observed.

Student absenteeism also is a problem at Central Falls High. Students and teachers complain that the school is disorderly and dangerous.

Officials blame the union contract, which gives teachers 15 paid sick days and two personal days a year: Teachers can accumulate up to 185 sick days.  Teachers with six years on the job are “entitled to 40 days of extended sick leave at full pay,” which goes up to 50 days after 15 years of service.  Six veteran teachers are out on stress-related medical leave; they’ve been replaced by long-term substitutes.

Teacher absenteeism has gotten worse each month, reports the Journal. In recent weeks, an average of 19 teachers a day out of 88 positions have been absent.

Nationwide, 5.3 percent of teachers are absent on any given day, writes Walt Gardner in his Ed Week blog. Stress pushes up the absentee rate.

Back to work at Central Falls High

Teachers will return to work at Central Falls High in Rhode Island in the fall under a deal with Superintendent Fran Gallo, who’d fired the entire staff of the low-performing  school in February.  Gallo called the teachers’ union’s bluff, writes Rick Hess.

 Gallo had asked Central Falls High’s teachers to agree to a series of school-improvement measures: you know, such nutso stuff as lengthening the school day, adding 90 minutes per week of common planning time, asking teachers to do a week of paid professional development at $30 per hour during the summer (the union wanted $90 per hour), and asking teachers to eat lunch with students once a week. The teachers rejected the proposals out of hand, triggering Gallo’s escalation.

Threatened with the mass lay-off — and knowing 800 applications have come in for the school’s 93 jobs – the union agreed to “Gallo’s initial requests, including two weeks (rather than one) of summer professional development at her preferred rate,” Hess writes.

Crucially, the agreement also stipulates that Gallo and the school’s new principal will have the authority to select an outside evaluator next fall. The evaluator will provide support and intervention where needed, and will identify teachers who need to be removed. Teachers will not be able to grieve the evaluation process, and fired teachers will have no bumping rights. In short, Gallo and the principal will have everything they need in order to identify weak teachers and get them out of the system.

It’s not clear how many teachers should be fired, Hess writes. While the school has struggled for many years — only half of students earn a diploma –  “we don’t know how much any given teacher is contributing to the school’s poor performance.”

Gist: teacher quality matters most

Improving teacher effectiveness is job one says Deborah Gist, Rhode Island’s controversial education commissioner, in a CommonWealth interview.

. . . in everything that I have experienced, both as a teacher and in my role as an administrator, and in everything I’ve read about the research about student achievement, the quality of the classroom teacher is the most important factor. It’s the greatest lever that we have to be able to improve the quality of education of our students.

Firing the staff at Central Falls High — no more than half will be rehired — was necessary, Gist argues. The school was on improvement lists for eight years. “Tinkering around the edges” didn’t work.

Failing school require a culture change, Gist says.

Many teachers begin to believe that because their students come from difficult circumstances or have challenges in their lives, they can’t achieve at higher levels. Just that shift in the thinking means that the expectations are lowered.

She talked to a young college student who lived in a group home in high school and used her problems to get special treatment from teachers.

She says [that], looking back, she really wishes that her teacher had said, with as much love and support as possible, “Look, I want to make sure you have all the supports that you need, but here’s what you need to do, and here’s when you need to do it, and here’s the quality that I expect.” Because now she’s in college, and she’s struggling. That was a clear example of the way in which the love that teachers have for our students can sometimes cause us to lower our expectations. It’s not enough to care.

Central Falls High teachers can reapply for their jobs this week. Their union has filed a lawsuit challenging the dismissals.

Gist has made the Time 100 list for 2010 under “thinkers.”

Compromise at Central Falls High

The plan to fire all teachers and staff at Central Falls High in Rhode Island is off, it appears.  The day after President Obama backed the firings, the union blinked, proposing a reform plan similar to what the superintendent wanted in the first place. A compromise is in the works.

“I am pleased to reassure the union their place in the planning process,” Central Falls Superintendent Frances Gallo said in a statement. She said she welcomes union input in developing “a dynamic plan to dramatically improve student achievement” at Central Falls High School.

The union now will accept “a longer school day, as well as more rigorous evaluations and training, among other steps.”

Will that help? Rhode Island has been trying to improve the school for many years to no avail.

“There just is very little evidence in terms of what works in quickly turning around a persistently low-performing school,” said Grover “Russ” Whitehurst, a Brookings Institution scholar who oversaw education research under President George W. Bush.

Flypaper, which has lots of links, thinks the students will be no better off and perhaps worse.

When a school is as dysfunctional as Central Falls High, it’s not just the teachers. It’s a succession of ineffective principals, faddish and incoherent curricula, poor support from parents and a lot more. A bad school drags down average teachers and drives out the most ambitious. What this school needs is an exceptionally good principal — competent is not good enough — with the authority to replace the least-effective tenured teachers. Central Falls might get a strong leader, but is unlikely to let the new principal fire the  teachers who flunk those “rigorous evaluations.”