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Strong in Her Convictions

Superintendent of Central Falls (R.I.) Schools Frances Gallo
Gallo fired all teachers, administrators and support staff at Central Falls High School.

Frances Gallo, superintendent of Central Falls (R.I.) schools since March 2007, looks ahead to the next school year when the Central Falls High School is set to have a different face.

In early January, the Rhode Island commissioner of education identified six schools, including Central Falls High, as the state's "persistently lowest-achieving schools."

Of the four options available to the schools to receive federal funds, Gallo was the only state superintendent to choose the "turnaround model," and in February, fired all of the school's 93 teachers, administrators and support staff, effective in June, with the option to hire back half of them. DA recently spoke with her about her decision.

Q: What led you to opt for the turnaround model?

Gallo: We had been preparing for a chance to apply for funds under the Title I School Improvement Grant. Central Falls had been labeled a "district in corrective action" and we assumed that one or more of our schools would be labeled in the "persistently low" category and we wanted to be ready to respond come January.

So, in January, when the high school was named as a lowest-achieving school, we had four options available to us: close the school, open a charter school, use a transformation model, or turn around.

I didn't want to close the school because that would take away the entire fabric of the community. We weren't looking to open a charter school because I thought that was considered union busting and I didn't want to do that. We initially wanted to use the transformation model because we felt we were already moving in a reform direction. We reached out to the union.

All parties understood we needed six assurances to meet the minimal requirements if we were going to proceed with the transformation model, including a longer school day, paid summer professional development and common planning time every week during the school year.

But it was clear to everyone that if we had no assurances, then we were going to the turnaround model, the last option. The union did not sign the assurances, and the stakeholder group and the board of trustees adopted the turnaround model.

Was it the right decision?

Gallo: For me, it was simply what had to be done. I was strong in my convictions. We had umpteen public meetings on this. There couldn't have been a single person who didn't know this wasn't at stake.

Can you describe the feelings among staff members and teachers? One teacher displayed an effigy of President Obama in protest to his support.

Gallo: Tensions were off the charts the first week or two. I think now I would say the staff is hurt and bewildered. I think they are now understanding a lot more about what went on and what didn't go on under their union leadership. I am hearing third hand, and I've been told by a number of union people that they never got to vote on whether they would actually do this, and that teacher voices were never heard.

You have received several threats from people nationwide. One man sent you a note wishing cancer on your children and their children.

Gallo: That shook me. I keep that folded in my Bible and pray for that individual.

The others, I click them away. Some e-mails tell me that I'm doing the wrong thing. Everyone is entitled to his or her opinion. And I value that. I tell them that I wish I didn't have to do it, but I tell them why I had to do it.

Do you understand their anger, as inexcusable as some of the threats are?

Gallo: I led these people for years with professionalism and fairness and integrity. And to be shouted down at a trustee meeting, to be called derogatory names, and to [hear someone] stand up and say, 'Look at us, coward'—this is unacceptable. Did I stand? Absolutely. Was I shaken? I felt nothing but disappointment and disrespect and finally compassion for these individuals. But where was your [the teachers] voice during this? All of a sudden it's the fault of Fran Gallo. That's sad. I'll take it and I'll own it and I'll walk with it. But everyone needs to examine their own conscience to see where the fault really lies.

You have the president's support. Does that make a difference to you?

Gallo: Absolutely. I fully respect the office of the presidency. I have read a lot about Secretary Duncan and what he says about education. The "how" of it is always the difficult part of education for me. The focus has always been on children, their needs and their academic, social and emotional growth. We're going to have flawed systems, but it sure can be a heck of a lot closer [to high achieving]. We all have to have the same focus.

Would you suggest that other district leaders do the same as you did if they were in the same situation?

Gallo: I think this has set the groundwork, so there will be a lot more discussion so superintendents will not have to make that kind of decision to use a turnaround model. But if they were in the same situation, and union leaders were not willing to listen or to move toward a reform agenda, then yes.

What are the next steps?

Gallo: We are in the planning stage with our stakeholders and will present a comprehensive plan to Education Commissioner Deborah Gist on Aug. 13. But Central Falls expects to deliver a substantial plan by early June. We are screening principal candidates. The leadership team, including the principal and assistants, will assist with the screening and rehiring of faculty as well as in the hiring of new faculty. All of this is expected by mid-June as well.

The board of trustees and I want to have much more student voice throughout, more internships and more authentic learning and applied learning. We have students in our Health Science Academy now, and at the local fire station students are taking classes in EMT training.

That's the kind of learning that keeps students engaged.

—Angela Pascopella