Central Falls teachers approve deal to save jobs

Providence, R.I. – Eighty-seven Central Falls High School teachers can keep their jobs under a turnaround plan approved by teachers' union members yesterday. After months of angry protests and national attention over the dismissal of the entire high school faculty, the settlement contains most if not all of the demands district leaders had requested from the outset.

Under the agreement, Central Falls High School teachers will work longer hours, eat lunch once a week with students and drop all legal claims against the district and the state. In exchange, they can keep their jobs and will be paid an extra $3,000 a year. Central Falls Superintendant Fran Gallo called the 3-year agreement groundbreaking.

"Together the Central Falls Teachers Union and the Central Falls school district has met and put on a balanced scale what does it take to move a school? What does it take to build real reform?" Gallo said. "It takes operational flexibility and we have achieved that."

In a near-unanimous vote, the teachers agreed to add 30 minutes to the school day and more than two hours a week for afterschool tutoring and faculty meetings. This is almost exactly what district leaders say they requested in April, when union leaders raised objections to the plan.

"We have had the opportunity to sit down, at times it has been difficult but any process that is groundbreaking and moves forward in such an aggressive manner often is," says Jane Sessums, president of the Central Falls Teachers Union. "But I think because we always had the students' best interest at heart that we knew that if we continued to talk that we would be able to reach the agreement that we did."

The two sides spent nearly 50 hours with a mediator after district officials announced they would proceed with the alternative: fire the entire high school faculty and re-hire no more than half of them for the fall term. Students say they're glad the teachers won't be fired, but some are left wondering whether all the drama was really necessary.

"If this was the case they should have just did it prior to making it all on the national news," said senior Eric Silva. He adds the controversy reinforced negative stereotypes about a school where the majority of students come from low income and immigrant families.

"Like my uncle in California even knows about this," Silva says. "So they made it a big deal and in the end they're getting their job back. So what was the point?"

Most teachers say they are happy with the settlement, which gives them a role in redesigning the school. It also calls for tougher teacher evaluations and an end to seniority-based assignments, something science teacher Dale Durnley says she's wanted for a long time.

"For example, I have an environmental science degree," Durnley says. "I was an environmental scientist for 10 years. Why aren't I teaching environmental science? I'd love that opportunity. And I hope to be placed in a position where I can be my best."

The tone in Central Falls may have shifted from contentious debate to collaboration, but Superintendent Fran Gallo says the harder question is what comes next.

"This isn't like Oh boy, here's the cake and now we're just going to sit down and eat it all,'" she said. "No, no! We may have all of the ingredients, but now its how do we figure out how much of this and how much of that goes into making this very successful baking product that we're about to mix up."

Now teachers and administrators have to implement a plan to improve the school. That will determine the success of this recipe.