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NEA and AFT Urge Support for Fired Rhode Island Teachers

By Cynthia McCabe and Ramona Parks-Kirby

March 1, 2010 — Teachers and staff at Central Falls High School in Rhode Island were making real progress in improving academics and raising test scores. But this past week, district administrators made national headlines with the now-infamous decision to fire the entire staff of the school.

The NEA and the American Federation of Teachers stand together in solidarity with the fired educators and are urging supporters to take action on their behalf.

“The tone used to describe the teachers in Central Falls has been disparaging and unforgiving,” said Dennis Van Roekel, president of the National Education Association. “It's time for federal officials to get out of the blame game and into the classroom. One thing is certain: Firing the entire faculty of a school that is on the path to improvement is no recipe for turning around a struggling high school. And relying on a magical pool of ‘excellent teachers’ to spring forth and replace them is naïve at best and desperately misguided.”

Today, President Barack Obama announced new steps aimed at improving the nation’s schools and graduation rates. The President detailed plans that would permit school districts to choose from four reform models to improve their lowest-performing schools. The methods include firing staff, closing schools, restarting schools with a takeover by a charter or school-management organization and transforming schools. Under the transformation model, educators work in collaboration with administrators. That's what was under way in Central Falls, until the superintendent opted to switch to the turnaround model, by which every teacher is fired at the school.

NEA supports the transformation reform model, which requires comprehensive instructional reforms and other collaborative improvement strategies. This method has shown to be effective in schools like Broad Acres in Montgomery County, Maryland. Broad Acres was the district’s lowest performing school. The superintendent, teachers and other stakeholders worked together to transform the school. In just two years second grade reading scores increased by 18 percent, language by 28 percent, language mechanics by 29 percent, math by 30 percent and math computation by 25 percent. Other improvements and details on the collaborative process are explained in a case study by the Tom Mooney Institute for Teacher and Union Leadership. 

Many of the President’s suggestions to increase graduation rates are similar to NEA’s 12-Point Action Plan for Reducing the School Dropout Rate. Some of the tactics NEA supports to combat the dropout crisis include: increasing individual attention, creating smaller learning communities, expanding graduation options and increasing workforce readiness programs.

In Central Falls, the 74 teachers and support professionals fired under the turnaround model are invested in their students and their community, local union leaders said. And while they recognize there is still much work to be done, they want nothing more than to stay hard at work and continue the momentum. 

A petition at encourages educators, parents, students, and members of the public call on District Superintendent Frances Gallo to do what is right — work with the teachers instead of scapegoating them, and seek real reforms that help students achieve.

In recommending their firing to the Central Falls school board Tuesday, Gallo took the unusual step of  blaming the teachers, rather than following a collaborative path to proven reforms that benefit students. As school board members tallied their 5-2 vote that amounted to a humiliating public firing of the educators, teachers packing the room leaned against each other for support and wept.

NEA and AFT leadership and members are working closely with the Central Falls Teachers Union and the Rhode Island Federation of Teachers and Health Professionals to get the Central Falls administration to return to negotiations and find a resolution to the crisis.

“NEA and President Obama share the common goal of wanting to improve student learning and reduce the number of students who drop out of school,” Van Roekel said. “We must examine the factors that contribute to low performing schools like dated or ineffective curriculum, school safety or socioeconomic challenges. We must provide the kind of resources and programs needed for students to succeed. We look forward to sharing strategies that will benefit America’s students.”