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Decision makes schools chief loathed and loved

By Wayne Drash, CNN
  • Inside embattled district, superintendent faces lonely battle after firing staff
  • "I never anticipated this," superintendent Fran Gallo says
  • Union unleashes wrath on Obama; Gallo finds an Obama effigy in class
  • Union chief: "Central Falls is a test case for the rest of the United States"

Central Falls, Rhode Island (CNN) -- Superintendent Frances Gallo combed the classrooms of embattled Central Falls High School. Teachers and students were gone for the day. Gallo was hunting for a particular item: an effigy of President Obama.

She hoped the rumor of its existence wasn't true.

Gallo had fired all the high school teachers just a month earlier, igniting an educational maelstrom in Rhode Island's smallest and poorest community while winning praise from the president.

The teachers union lampooned her; hate mail flooded her inbox. For weeks, she'd prayed every morning for the soul of the man who wrote: "I wish cancer on your children and their children and that you live long enough to see them die."

It was one thing to take barbs from opponents -- another thing altogether if the division was infecting classrooms. Teachers assured the superintendent that the school battle wasn't seeping into lesson plans. So, when CNN asked her about the rumor of the effigy, Gallo took it upon herself to get to the bottom of it.

She entered the school in the dark of night Monday. She started her room-to-room sweep on the first floor. The first was clean, then the next and the next.

Yet newspaper headlines about the controversy, Gallo says, were plastered nearly everywhere. What are the teachers doing? she thought.

Most were local papers with banner headlines: "Teachers fired." Others highlighted Obama's support of Gallo, an endorsement that turned an already tense situation into a firestorm.

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In this Democratic stronghold, teachers wondered: How could the president they supported turn his back on them? Some peeled Obama bumper stickers off their cars.

Gallo knew Obama's endorsement would create further uproar. She just didn't know how bad it would get.

She continued making her way through the school, clearing the first two floors. She was disheartened by the newspaper postings but relieved she hadn't found the offensive item.

One floor to go.

She climbed the steps and entered a classroom.

There it was.

"You couldn't miss it."

An Obama doll, about a foot tall, hung by its feet from the white board; the doll held a sign that said, "Fire Central Falls teachers," she says.

Recounting her discovery later, Gallo broke down in tears. A flood of emotions poured out, the raw toll of all that has transpired in recent weeks.

When she confronted the teacher responsible, she says he responded that it was "a joke to him."

The teachers, she says, have "no idea the harm they're doing." She thought of Obama's words: Students get only one shot at an education.

"I've tried to explain this over and over again: The children here are very disturbed by the actions of their teachers, and they're torn apart because they also love them."

It's lonely being a voice for change.

'Miracles Happen Everyday'

Central Falls is a town of more than 18,000 people -- most of them Hispanic immigrants -- living within 1.5 square miles. "Ripley's Believe It Or Not" once dubbed the town, about 10 minutes from Providence, the most densely populated in the nation.

The school is an ornate brick building with decorative columns. A housing project backs up to the campus. A marquee outside the school reads: "Daily reflection on your efforts and outcomes will improve both."

Just a few blocks away, Gallo works from a modest building that looks as if it were once a home. A wall in the superintendent's office is decorated with Central Falls High T-shirts. "Don't talk trash ... recycle it," one says.

Above her door is a sign: "Miracles Happen Everyday." It keeps her grounded, she says, reminding her that "my kids are going to learn."

Gallo arrived in Central Falls in 2007, knowing a tough job loomed ahead. The school had already been designated one of the lowest-performing in Rhode Island.

"I have never once looked away from a challenge or put children second," she says.

The school has been failing for the last seven years. Its graduation rate stands around 48 percent. Math proficiency is a paltry 7 percent. Reading scores have improved by 21 percentage points in the last two years, but still lag far behind with 55 percent able to read at grade level, according to school officials.

Like the town's population, most of the 800 students at Central Falls are Hispanic. For many, English is a second language. Teachers say the population is so transient, the statistics are skewed: Dozens of students enroll as freshmen but move before their senior year. Those students get counted in the low graduation rate.

It's a difficult environment in which to teach, teachers say, and they do their best. Gallo says union contracts, or "scar tissue," are so thick and dense that instituting reform is difficult.

Gallo says she didn't want to take the drastic measure of firing all 93 teachers, support staff and administrators. Yet her decision to do so instantly made her one of the boldest school administrators in the nation -- loathed and loved, reviled and applauded.

"I never anticipated this. Never," Gallo says.

On the wall behind her desk is a framed quotation: "Courage doesn't always roar. Sometimes courage is the quiet voice at the end of the day saying, 'I will try again tomorrow.' "

How the fight brewed

Maybe it's her grandma looks -- gray hair, rimmed glasses, soft-spoken voice. Whatever the reason, it seems the teachers union underestimated this superintendent.

A lifelong Rhode Islander, Gallo began her career in education 38 years ago, first as a teacher before moving into school administration as a principal in 1984.

On tough days, she wears an eagle broach. A child at her first school gave it to her as a reminder that "eagles fly high and soar on the thermals."

She's been wearing it a lot lately.

The raw-knuckled fight playing out here intensified in January when Rhode Island became the first state seeking an injection of federal funds to transform low-performing schools.

Rhode Island's education commissioner identified six schools, including Central Falls High, as the worst in the state. The troubled schools stood to gain $12.4 million -- including a one-time payment of $10.5 million from federal stimulus funds. The state decides how to allocate the funds.

The deadline to apply was February 22. Administrators scrambled. To qualify for the money under strict federal guidelines, the schools had four options:

• Close altogether

• Restart as a charter school or under a new management organization

• Undergo a "transformation" model in which the principal is replaced and all aspects of the school's performance are evaluated

• Take a more drastic "turnaround" approach, in which all staff are fired with the possibility that up to 50 percent can be rehired.

In Central Falls, Gallo ruled out the first two choices. She initially sought the transformation model, and the union agreed in principle.

Gallo laid out her tools of transformation: Teachers would work a longer school day of seven hours and tutor students weekly for one hour outside school time. They would have lunch with students often, meet for 90 minutes every week to discuss education and set aside two weeks during summer break for paid professional development.

For some of the extra work, Gallo would pay $30 an hour from the federal grant. The teachers union pushed for more: $90 an hour.

Talks broke down. Gallo turned to the nuclear option.

"Central Falls is a test case for the rest of the United States. I don't think anyone was prepared for this kind of fallout," said Marcia Reback, president of the Rhode Island Federation of Teachers.

She puts the blame solely on the "take it or leave it" attitude of the superintendent. She says that the union was never allowed to offer any alternatives to transform the school and that teachers want school programs revamped.

Before the union knew it, the superintendent recommended the firing of all teachers. The recommendation was affirmed 5-2 by the school board. By February 23, termination notices had gone out.

"I felt I had no choice," Gallo says. "And I continue to believe that is the right decision."

The firings go into effect in June. No more than 50 percent of the current staff can be rehired. Teachers will learn their fate in late May.

Anxiety and supercharged tensions ripple through this small town. How could they not? Educators' livelihoods are at stake.

The union is seeking a return to the bargaining table. Reback suggested the only way for Obama to save face is to help bring all parties together in a mediated settlement.

Even as the president applauded Central Falls' reform, he conceded that firing teachers is the least preferred measure. "Replacing school staff should only be done as a last resort," he said at an education event on March 1.

"But if a school continues to fail its students year after year, if it doesn't show signs of improvement, then there's got to be a sense of accountability," Obama said. "And that's what happened in Rhode Island."

Says Reback: "The president was badly briefed."

The Warrior students

Students continue to attend class in this heated environment. Reback says that a toxic atmosphere doesn't exist -- that the teachers are professionals who stick to their lesson plans.

The union chief also has received hate mail. Reback says her favorite was plain and simple: "You suck."

About 70 graduates recently descended on the campus. They blasted Obama for supporting the superintendent and heaped praise on their teachers for influencing their lives.

Away from the scene, current students described an emotionally charged atmosphere. They care deeply about their teachers and don't understand why everyone was fired. Some teachers, they say, have blamed the students in class by asking why the teens didn't study more. Other teachers have moved forward, saying the whole thing is above their heads, according to students.

"I think it's the teachers' fault and the students' fault. It's the teachers' fault for giving up on us, but it's also the students' fault for not trying," said one student, whom CNN is not naming because of the possibility of retribution. "A teacher can't make a student study."

The students are aware that their school has become a national pariah, and they don't like it. Their mascot is the Warrior, a symbol for those braving the chaos.

They also want to help shape the new school. They say their input has been neglected in the fracas. It's an idea Gallo welcomes.

Gallo has played all the roles in her life: student, teacher, principal and parent. Her three children have grown up to be teachers themselves. One faces an uncertain job future in Massachusetts, where a similar battle is under way.

Years ago, when her two sons played football, Gallo couldn't bear the insults hurled by the crowd at the players. So she joined the officiating crew. Her job was to help move the first down chains. It was a way to escape the nastiness in the stands and serve a positive role while watching her team move toward its goal.

Now, she's the target of the nasty comments. The pressure to succeed has grown exponentially since she decided to fire staff.

"It's been an amazing life since that moment," she says.

The game has changed. She's front and center. Will she be able to move the chains forward?