Skip to main content

Graduates rally for embattled school

By Wayne Drash, CNN
Graduates of Central Falls High School held a peaceful demonstration Tuesday.
Graduates of Central Falls High School held a peaceful demonstration Tuesday.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • About 70 young people, most of them graduates of the school, demonstrated Tuesday
  • Graduates upset by President Obama's comments about their school
  • Supporters say school is improving, despite the neighborhood's many obstacles

Central Falls, Rhode Island (CNN) -- Graduates of the nation's most vilified high school descended upon campus Tuesday evening to support the school's fired teachers. They also had a message for President Obama: Don't bash our school.

"He doesn't know us. He doesn't know the teachers. He doesn't know the students," said Nikko Calle, 21, a graduate of Central Falls High School in 2006. "I think it's a real outrage what's happening here."

Nearby, Ashley Delgado, 19, stood on the school's steps clutching a sign that read: "Dear Obama, I supported you, your causes, goals and beliefs. Why aren't you supporting mine?"

A firestorm has erupted in this Democratic stronghold in recent weeks after 93 teachers, support staff and administrators at Central Falls High School were fired for the low performance of the school, which graduated just 48 percent of its seniors last year. The firings will go into effect at the end of the school year. Teachers can re-apply, but no more than 50 percent will get rehired.

Ashley Delgado, 19, expressed her displeasure with President Obama's comments about the school.
Ashley Delgado, 19, expressed her displeasure with President Obama's comments about the school.
About 70 people demonstrated. Most of them are graduates of the school and are now in college or working.
About 70 people demonstrated. Most of them are graduates of the school and are now in college or working.

Obama weighed in last week, endorsing the actions of the local board. "Our kids get only one chance at an education and we need to get it right," the president said.

Obama's comments further inflamed an already tense environment in this poor Rhode Island enclave, just outside Providence.

"I couldn't believe it," said Delgado, who graduated in 2008. "Ever since the beginning, I thought firing all the teachers was a ridiculous notion."

About 70 young people, most of them graduates of the school and now in college or working, demonstrated peacefully outside the school in the largely Hispanic, working class neighborhood. They expressed outrage and disbelief that the school they attended has become a national pariah.

"We stand together for our teachers and for our school," said Katherine Lopera, 20, a graduate in 2007.

Her classmate, Sindy Alvisures, said, "The teachers are literally like our family. When I went through high school, I went through a lot of personal problems and my teachers were always there for me."

Of the 800 students who currently attend Central Falls, 65 percent are Hispanic; English is a second language for most. Half the students are failing every subject, with 55 percent skilled in reading and 7 percent proficient in math, officials say.

The defenders of the school say improvements have been made, but the stats are skewed against them because the school's population is so transient.

Tuesday's demonstration was to coincide with a board of trustees meeting, where the firings were to be the main topic. However, the meeting was abruptly called off, because the Governor's Commission on Disabilities said the school's auditorium was unfit for people with disabilities.

On the steps outside the school, George McLaughlin shrugged. He cast suspicion on the reason for the meeting's cancellation. "Unless they mean, it's not fit for morally disabled people," he said.

McLaughlin has been a guidance counselor at Central Falls for the last 15 years. His wife is a chemistry teacher. "We will lose all of our income."

He suggested Obama should summon the 93 teachers and administrators for a beer summit. The president "hasn't heard our side of the story," said McLaughlin, a member of the teachers' union. "He hasn't listened to us. He knows nothing about us."

We're all taking our bumper stickers for Obama off our cars.
--Marcia Reback
RELATED TOPICS

Marcia Reback, president of the Rhode Island Federation of Teachers, was less hospitable toward the president.

"We're all taking our bumper stickers for Obama off our cars," Reback said earlier in the day.

She said the union supports school reform. She called for an independent mediator to intervene at Central Falls because tensions have gotten so high between the union and the school administrators who carried out the firings.

"This is unprecedented," Reback said. "I don't think anyone was prepared for this kind of fallout."

School superintendent Fran Gallo said she stands by her decision. She noted the school didn't graduate half its seniors last year. "Somebody hasn't spoken up for them, the other 50 percent," she said.

As darkness fell at the school, the graduates who had come back said the problems at the school have been oversimplified and that the rest of the nation can't understand the importance of the teachers in the tough environment they live.

Nikko Calle said one of the most important men in his life was his creative writing teacher, Michael Occhi. A freshly planted tree stands on the school's lawn to honor the legacy of Occhi. He was killed in an accident by a drunk driver last summer.

Encouraged by his high school teacher, Calle has taken up poetry. "A lot of these teachers here helped me through hard times," he said. "They were always here for me."

Now, many here wonder what the legacy of the school will be next.

 
Quick Job Search