The mass firings of teachers at a struggling high school here have been a flashpoint in the national debate over education reform, with even President Barack Obama weighing in and endorsing the move as an example of holding failing schools accountable.
On Monday, after months of tense negotiations on how to improve Central Falls High School, administrators and teachers struck a unified tone as they detailed an agreement that will allow the staffers to keep their jobs while requiring them to work a longer day, tutor students outside class and make other reforms.
"This is an aggressive agreement. It is one, we are confident, that is going to result in dramatic achievements at the high school," state Education Commissioner Deborah Gist said at a news conference announcing the deal.
The agreement, which officials said passed overwhelmingly in a union vote Monday, allows the roughly 90 fired teachers and staff to reclaim their jobs without having to reapply. The teachers were to lose their jobs at the end of the school year.
Central Falls is one of the state's lowest performing schools, with only 7 percent of 11th graders testing proficient in math last fall. The school was under a mandate from the state to make approvements, and Superintendent Frances Gallo and the school board opted for the mass firings after a breakdown in talks with teachers about other reforms that would have required more work, some without extra pay. No more than half the teachers could have been rehired under federal rules.
Since the February board vote, the teachers and the school district had been working with a mediator. They hammered out an agreement over the weekend that reverses the firings just weeks before the end of the school year.
The agreement lengthens the school day by 30 minutes and requires all teachers to do one hour of tutoring each week. Teachers would be required to eat lunch with students once a week, face a more rigorous evaluation system and undergo up to 10 days of professional development every summer and 90 minutes of weekly planning time after school.
Those conditions are similar to but more stringent than the ones proposed by Gallo before the firings.
"Cooperation and collaboration are necessary ingredients in school improvement," union president Jane Sessums said. "The conflict has been very difficult, especially for the students and the teachers."
Teachers would receive an annual stipend of $3,000 for the extra work, plus $30 per hour of professional development time. The principal would be reassigned to the middle school.
Officials acknowledged Monday that the agreement does not guarantee immediate improvement at the chronically underperforming school.
"This is going to be real, it's going to be hard, it's going to be difficult," Gallo said. "It isn't like, `Oh boy, here's the cake, and now we're just going to sit down and enjoy eating it all.'"
U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan praised the agreement, saying in a statement that it would allow for more interaction between students and teachers and provide better collaboration among staff.
The firings caught the attention of Obama, who during a national education address in March singled out the move as an example of accountability.
"So if a school is struggling, we have to work with the principal and the teachers to find a solution," Obama said. "We've got to give them a chance to make meaningful improvements. But if a school continues to fail its students year after year after year, if it doesn't show any sign of improvement, then there's got to be a sense of accountability."
Gist said the firings were never intended as a knock on the performance of individual teachers, but rather emerged from concern that the staff was not sufficiently committed to making necessary reforms.
"We will not have persistently low-achieving schools in our state," she said. "That is not going to be a phenomenon that is going to continue."
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