Education Battles on Two Fronts
Friday, June 10, 2011
Thursday night, state Education Commissioner Deborah Gist (right) took her community listening tour to Central Falls, which has been in the news for weeks for its school woes and clashes. At the same time in Providence, the debate over charter schools took center stage.
Hearing Heats Up in Providence
At more than one time, tensions nearly reached a boiling point Thursday evening at Alvarez High School in Providence. during the third public hearing regarding the Achievement First charter management organization's application to come to Rhode Island.
Roughly 100 parents, teachers, union members and charter school advocates turned out to voice their approval, or in most cases their disapproval, of the well-known charter school network that has shown impressive results in some of the poorest neighborhoods in Connecticut and New York City.
Achievement First Would Run Mayoral Academy
The organization hopes to run the proposed Mayoral Academy that would cater to students in Providence and Cranston. But the majority in the room (mostly representing Cranston) said now is not the time for a charter school in their town. Their message: Why fix what isn't broken?
"I'm not opposed to all charters, I'm opposed to opening new schools," said Joe Rotz, a Cranston resident. Rotz said as a Cranston taxpayer, he wants his children to have what he had as a public school student, but he fears that opening a Mayoral Academy could jeopardize more funding to traditional public schools.
Union Feels Duped
Steve Smith, president of the Providence Teachers Union, said he was an early supporter of the state's Race to the Top application, which was contingent upon bringing charter schools (including Achievement First) into the state, but now he feels duped by Commissioner Deborah Gist. He said he signed on believing half of the $75 million grant would be distributed to local communities.
"To Commissioner Gist," he said. "Show me the money."
"She's keeping the money," he said to a standing ovation.
Support for a Charter School
But others, like parent Misty Wilson, spoke out in support of Achievement First.
Wilson said she went to public schools in Providence and Pawtucket and didn't always have the best experience. She recalls a middle school science teacher that didn't teach her much
Another supporter was Elizabeth Burke Bryant (left), executive director of Rhode Island Kids Count. Bryant said she supports any school that wants to come to Rhode Island and help close the achievement gap.
"I'm a supporter of excellence across the board," she said. Bryant said the state's economic future depends on closing the achievement gap and that Achievement First can help do that.
Maryellen Butke, Executive Director of the Rhode Island Campaign For Achievement Now (lower right), said that Rhode Islanders need to recognize the hard truth.
"We can decide to protect people's jobs and protect a student that a lot of people are comfortable with but that's failing many of our kids," she said. "Or we can decide to embrace change
Major Change a Major Challenge in Central Falls
Further north, Gist could be forgiven if she went into Central Falls warily, given the tensions that have developed between teachers and the administration. (See related GoLocalProv articles below.) But she was very much upbeat prior to her presentation and question-and-answer session before a crowd of over 60 people that Gist told was “three or four times bigger than we have had attend in other districts.”
“No, I’m not worried,” she said. “Central Falls has gotten a lot of good work done. In fact, I am going to see some Central Falls kids soon at Save The Bay and do some science work with them on the water.”
“Any major change is a major challenge,” she said of the controversy stirred up in the district by a now-rescinded termination of teachers, a school transformation program, and a no-confidence vote by the teachers in the superintendent, Frances Gallo, as well as a series of minor issues that have drawn media attention.
A good deal of the flak has come from state Senator John Tassoni - although some claims proved incorrect - but Gist was sure she could iron out those problems at the State House as well.
“I will be meeting with Senator Tassoni soon,” she said. “He has concerns, and I want to make him comfortable that we have proper oversight. We will work with the district to verify that correcting steps have been taken."
Pleas and a Commitment
The prevailing sentiment of the evening was that the community of Central Falls wants the state to help them in helping to resolve their problems. As one person in the audience told the commissioner, “As a parent I am pleading for help.”
But as Gist pointed out on one occasion, “The state wants to let the local community work to solve its own problems.“ Although she did promise near the evening’s end, after hearing the frequent calls for assistance, that, “I will make a commitment to find some resources to come back and do some facilitation…to come in and invite everyone to come out with some clarity as to how people can work together.”
One parent expressed frustration that “the media only reports on the bad things.” While Gist noted there were also some very good stories played up publicly about successful Central Falls students, she also said, “We let our students get caught in the middle of grown-up disputes.”
“We can’t have grown-ups attacking and blaming each other,” she said. “We need to move forward together. Even in your own families you don’t always get along. But ultimately we have the same goals.”
Police Presence Unwelcome
Hugo Figueroa, who addressed Gist and the audience in Spanish through a translator, said, “We are all here as parents who care about kids. But I don’t like the police officer in the high school. Why is there no policeman in Barrington? In Lincoln? Do we have criminals here?”
Gist reassured Figueroa that the district certainly “didn’t want to create the impression that the kids are criminals,” adding, “but there are policemen in high schools all across the state. We call them resource officers.” She warned that if they strayed from their task of being role models for students and began looking for crime, that would indeed be a problem.
Teachers’ Firing Traumatic
Alice Webb, who declared herself a 1973 graduate of Central Falls High, with two children who had also graduated from CFHS and another who was due to have his commencement the next day, said she had pulled her fourth and youngest child from the system and sent him to a private schoolbecause of the problems in the district.
“The firing of teachers has left me outraged and disgruntled,” she said to Gist. "I thought when the firing was rescinded it would change things, but it hasn’t. I know teachers who can’t be here tonight because if they speak up, they will (suffer repercussions). These teachers have a rapport with students, but they have lost their hearts and souls.”
Gist admitted that it was “a huge, traumatic thing in Central Falls when teachers were terminated. But it wasn’t because they were bad; not because they weren’t doing their job,” putting it down to the need for school transformation with everyone on board. At the time they were fired, not everyone did have buy-in, Gist said.
Come To My School
As the end of the meeting neared, Webb rose again to challenge Gist and Superintendent Gallo, saying “With all this turmoil, it just helps drive parents to the charter schools.”
To which Gallo loudly replied, “Why don’t they come to my schools?”
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- A LIVELY EXPERIMENT May 19, 2011 Central Falls Schools
- BREAKING NEWS: Central Falls Teachers Say It’s a Deal
- BREAKING NEWS: Central Falls Union Votes No Confidence in Gallo
- BREAKING NEWS: Gist - Central Falls Teachers, Administration Reach a Deal
- BREAKING NEWS: Gist Speaks Out on Central Falls School District
- Central Falls Elementary School Slated for Closure
- Central Falls School District Get $1.3 Million Grant
- Gist: Reform at Central Falls Now Can Move at ‘Light Speed’
- 5 Charter Schools RI Needs Now
- Charter Schools Help Some Kids, but Cost Many Others
- Group Says Charter Schools Key to Improved NECAP Scores
- NEW: RI Public Charter Schools Welcome National Education Expert and Award-Winning Educator
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