An Example in Rhode Island

By Lawrence Hardy

In the quiet and calm of the high school library, the trustees of Central Falls School District gathered around a large table and prepared for their last meeting of the 2009-10 year. A small contingent of spectators, mostly administrators and support staff, sat facing the trustees -- smiling, chatting, talking about summer plans. Others, including teachers and students attending a presentation on the special education program, stood farther back amid the shelves of neatly filed volumes.

A visitor might think it was business as usual in this small city school district, located in a poor urban hamlet just north of Providence, R.I. Only when Superintendent Frances Gallo turned to the subject of Central Falls High School was glancing reference made to the turmoil that, just a few months earlier, had threatened to tear this community apart and made the district a symbol of the Obama administration’s get-tough approach to failing schools.

“I’m calling it ‘a high school in reform,’” Gallo said.

By now the story has been told many times: How Gallo had sought up to $1 million in badly needed federal improvement funds for the school but could not agree with the teachers union on compensation for the longer hours and additional duties required by the U.S. Department of Education. How she then shifted from the “transformation” model to the Education Department’s “turnaround” mode, which dictated that she fire the school’s 92 teachers, administrators and support staff and make them reapply for their jobs. How, after months of bitter accusations on both sides -- and even statements of support from President Obama and Secretary of Education Arne Duncan -- Gallo reached an agreement with the union, went back to the transformation model, and hired all the teachers back.

How you interpret these events depends in part on how you view a number of hot-button issues surrounding low-performing schools, issues that George W. Bush brought to the forefront with No Child Left Behind and that Obama and Duncan are continuing to push through the Race to the Top program and other competitive grants.

Can firing all the teachers (and, according to Department of Education mandates, rehiring no more than half) really turn a school around? Or does it just make matters worse and add to the instability?

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