CENTRAL FALLS, R.I. – The teachers at Central Falls High School struck a deal to get their jobs back last year after the entire staff was fired in a radical, last-ditch attempt to raise student performance. But if the administrators thought the teachers would be grateful for a second chance, they were wrong.
Many teachers aren't showing up for work, often calling out sick. Several abruptly quit within the first few weeks of the school year. Administrators have had to scramble to find qualified substitutes and have withheld hundreds of student grades because of the teacher absences.
The progress that the city's school board — and the Obama administration — had hoped for seems increasingly, and alarmingly, elusive.
The problems come despite a labor agreement that union leaders and administrators in this poor, heavily immigrant city trumpeted as a breakthrough at Central Falls High, a struggling school of roughly 840 students where just 7 percent of 11th-graders were proficient in math in 2009.
"I expected when everyone came to the school that there would be more of a shared focus on making sure that everything was successful," said state Education Commissioner Deborah Gist. "At this point, we're concerned about whether or not people are going to be able to let go of the past and work together toward moving forward."
Exactly what's causing all the problems is unclear, but both sides acknowledge lingering discontent over the firings and the changes that followed.
Richard Kinslow, an English teacher who has not been calling out sick, said a new management team that was put in place was inexperienced and failed to offer support for teachers or crack down on rampant discipline problems, including what he said were physical and verbal assaults on staff members by students.
"We don't have a sense of clarity from our leadership. We don't have a clear sense of their mission or their vision. Communication has been, again, awful," Kinslow said. "If I'm going to be thrown into the bus by my supposed leaders every day, where is my hope? Where is my sense of team? Why would I be working?"
But he said he was hopeful that a team of mediators coming into the school could encourage cooperation.
Central Falls High became Exhibit A in a national debate on education reform when the school board last February authorized the firing of all teachers. The school was identified as one of the state's worst, and after talks with the union broke down, the superintendent resorted to a new option, created by the Obama administration, that allows the dismissal of teachers at poorly performing schools.
President Barack Obama appeared to endorse the firings, saying drastic action may be warranted when schools show no signs of improvement.
The White House declined to comment this week.
Following months of negotiations, the teachers were rehired after agreeing to work a longer school day, undergo more rigorous evaluations and provide more after-school tutoring. At the time, Gist said the changes would result in "dramatic achievement."
That hasn't happened.
More than a dozen teachers — and sometimes over 20 — of the roughly 90-person staff were absent on an average day this fall, including six on long-term leave, said Central Falls School Superintendent Frances Gallo. Fifteen teachers have left since August, including six who quit after school started, though administrators said they have only one vacancy left to fill.
"It's extremely frustrating, but more than that, I believe it's extremely unprofessional," Gallo said. "Teaching is getting a black eye, and why? Because not every teacher is living up to their vocation."
Administrators withheld more than 450 first-quarter grades after deciding teacher attendance was too spotty to accurately measure student performance.
A student walkout disrupted classes last month, and the president of the American Federation of Teachers held a news conference to support the teachers.
Some students said they have grown weary of the negative attention, arguing teachers are being scapegoated for problems beyond their control. But some also said there are teachers and administrators who aren't equipped to deal with disciplinary and academic problems.
"If we don't do work, they don't redirect us. They just kick us out of the class. How are we going to learn from getting kicked out every day?" asked Frankie Dehoyos, 14, a freshman. But he added, "We should all get blamed — not just the teachers, the students."
Some parents are angry — some at the teachers, some at the administrators, some at both sides.
"The teachers have taken advantage of their sickness days. Almost every day they're absent, so students don't get a lot of education," said Jose Ortiz, as his daughter, Kyara, a Central Falls student, translated from Spanish. "The students don't pay attention in class because the teachers don't help them."
Gallo said the teachers' absences have detracted from the positive developments at Central Falls, including new Saturday school, a new math program — and the fact that roughly 20 teachers have not missed a day of work.
Heavily Hispanic Central Falls is Rhode Island's smallest and poorest city, with a population of nearly 19,000. One-quarter of families live in poverty and 65 percent speak a language other than English at home. The city is under the control of a state-appointed receiver, who says its problems are so dire that Central Falls should consider merging with neighboring Pawtucket.
"It wasn't easy to be fired based on failing test scores in English and math when they already know that the kids aren't at that level when they give them the tests," said JoAnn Boss, a Spanish teacher who was on long-term medical leave this fall.
Gist said the school can improve if it continues following its reform plan, which lays out goals for raising academic proficiency, increasing the graduation rate and improving student discipline.
But she and other officials acknowledged that other drastic measures, such as closing the school or again replacing the teachers, may need to be considered if things don't improve fast.
"There's good reason to hope that it can get better," said Robert Flanders, chairman of the state Board of Regents for Elementary and Secondary Education. "Because it can't get any worse."
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