Rhode Island High School Turns Around the Turnaround Model

Published October 19, 2010

Quietly and with little fanfare, the teaching staff at Central Falls High School in Rhode Island has gone back to work under an amended contract. Nearly 100 teachers returned to the classroom this fall after gaining national attention and notoriety in February when Superintendent Frances Gallo summarily fired them after the teachers union refused to agree to reforms aimed at improving student performance.

Gallo’s move drew the wrath of teachers unions nationally—and earned plaudits from U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan and President Barack Obama.

Half of Students Failed Everything
Gallo’s decision to fire the entire staff was forced by consistently low performance at the high school, which serves a working-class town of 20,000 residents near Providence. According to state education officials, 93 percent of 11th-graders at Central Falls High tested below proficiency in math last year, and only 55 percent scored proficient in reading.

Of the school’s 800 students, 65 percent are Hispanic English-language learners. Approximately half the student body last year failed every subject.

Under new federal mandates advanced by the Obama administration to transform schools deemed low-performing, Gallo could choose among several reform options, up to and including replacing the teachers and staff.

Gallo agreed to rehire the teachers in May after the Central Fall Teachers Union agreed to concessions including longer school days, comprehensive evaluations, and expanding after-school tutoring. The district agreed to pay teachers $30 per hour for tutoring and a $3,000 stipend for the longer school day. The added costs will be covered by a federal grant.

Calls for ‘New Paradigm’
Although firing the staff is by far the most drastic option available to school district officials, Gallo says her first choice was always a turnaround model that kept current teachers employed while implementing other structural reforms such as tutoring and extended school hours.

“I definitely think the turnaround model is a worthy opportunity for school reform change. However, a simpler, less divisive model is preferred,” said Gallo. 

“If all educators can wrap themselves in a new paradigm of collaborative bargaining where the needs of children are the first and foremost concern, then I think schools everywhere will see a new day,” said Gallo. “Of course getting to this ‘win’ for everyone takes time and collective will.”

Andy Smarick, vice president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, disagrees with turnarounds as a strategy. “School turnaround efforts have consistently fallen far short of hopes and expectations. Quite simply, turnarounds are not a scalable strategy for fixing America’s troubled urban school systems,” he said.

Replacing staff does have the advantage of forcing teachers unions to bargain, said Larry Sand, CEO of the California Teacher Empowerment Network and a retired teacher. “The district had a right to do what they did. Superintendent Gallo and the state commissioner weren’t going to be cowed by the union,” Sand said. “I think the union wisely put their tail between their legs and gave in.”

Evelyn Stacey ([email protected]) writes from Malibu, California.