Rhode Island school to rehire fired teachers, shelving drastic plan

Central Falls High School had fired its staff as part of a strategy for failing schools. Now, the Rhode Island school has reached a tentative agreement to keep the staff but make other changes.

Gretchen Ertl/AP/File
Central Falls High School in Central Falls, R.I., shown in this March 3 file photo, attracted nationwide attention in February for its decision to fire its entire staff has now reached a tentative agreement to rehire them.

The Rhode Island school that attracted nationwide attention in February for its decision to fire its entire staff has reached a tentative agreement to rehire them. Rather than seeing it as a backtracking, both the district and teachers say the compromise benefits students and teachers alike.

The mass firing that had been announced at Central Falls High School allowed teachers to reapply for their jobs, but only a limited number would have been rehired. It was part of an effort to try to turn around a chronically low-performing school, and teachers unions had severely criticized it.

Under the new agreement, which was expected to be ratified by teachers on Monday, nearly 90 teachers, counselors, and other personnel will not have to reapply, but they will need to interview with the new principal and recommit to their jobs. The agreement also calls for a longer school day, targeted professional development for teachers, after-school tutoring, and a new evaluation system, among other changes.

The district got the teachers to agree to all the conditions it had originally outlined – and which teachers had rejected – prior to the February firing. In fact, the new agreement includes even more concessions, notes Justin Cohen, president of the School Turnaround Group at Mass Insight Education in Boston.

“I don’t think it’s backtracking,” he says. “I hope what happens here is instead of going through the Sturm und Drang of firing and rehiring everybody, people can really look at these [collective bargaining] agreements” and have them be more productive from the beginning.

The mass firing at Central Falls is not the first time that districts have tried this approach to turn around a chronically failing school. Supporters say that replacing much of the staff is sometimes necessary to alter the culture of a school and have staff buy into reforms. But critics – including unions – contend that it’s an overly harsh tactic that is unsupported by research.

The Central Falls decision attracted an unusual amount of media attention, and it earned support from President Obama and Education Secretary Arne Duncan. “If a school continues to fail its students year after year after year, if it doesn’t show signs of improvement, then there’s got to be a sense of accountability,” Mr. Obama said in remarks in March, shortly after the firing. “And that’s what happened in Rhode Island ... at a chronically troubled school, when just 7 percent of 11th-graders passed state math tests.”

The controversy threatened to cause a rift between teachers unions and the Obama administration, and it shone a spotlight on Obama’s backing of dramatic reforms to turn around failing schools. (Firing much of the staff is one of four strategies that his administration supports.)

The Central Falls controversy, despite the new agreement, “may be a watershed event in terms of teacher support for Obama,” says Jack Jennings, president of the Center on Education Policy in Washington. “They’re feeling everything is being dumped on them.”

Still, people on both sides are hailing the compromise as one that can benefit both students and teachers.

"Both the school district and the union agree that while this has been a difficult process for everyone involved, the negotiations resulted in a newfound appreciation for shared responsibility, and a solid commitment to bring lasting solutions that will improve teaching and learning at Central Falls High School," said a joint statement from the union and the district.

Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, said in a statement that “the events of the past few months have shown the need for a collaborative approach to school improvement.”

Mr. Cohen of Mass Insight says he hopes this does, in fact, mean that more districts can get the sorts of changes that they want during initial bargaining, without resorting to dramatic firing measures. However, he also notes, getting old teachers to buy into a new culture can be challenging, and some shake-up of staff is often necessary to get rid of the least effective teachers and to make real changes at schools with chronic difficulties.

“Because it’s so difficult to exit teachers, you end up with these all-or-nothing events instead of a more thoughtful process,” Cohen says. “I’ve run turnarounds, and at no point did I think that summarily firing every teacher is the best outcome for kids. But when the debate is so polarized, those outcomes happen.... I hope folks will start to look at the agreement that came out of this really political, adult-driven process from February to now and end up with a better collective-bargaining agreement.”


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