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Union boss defends teachers at troubled R.I. school

By Eric Tucker
Associated Press / December 22, 2010

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CENTRAL FALLS, R.I. — The head of the American Federation of Teachers yesterday defended teachers at a persistently troubled Rhode Island high school where the entire staff was fired last year. She also asked the state’s incoming governor to intervene.

Randi Weingarten said at a news conference with local union officials that teachers are committed to making the school better but need help and support from the administration. Weingarten called on Governor-elect Lincoln Chafee to convene a team, including the state education commissioner and school superintendent, to work on ways to improve the school.

“We want to make sure this school is a shining light — a beacon for hope not only in this community but throughout the country,’’ Weingarten said. “Pull together a group of us so that we can see what is and what isn’t working and put the school on track to work for kids.’’

She defended the teachers against reports that many are absent on any given school day, saying the absenteeism rate being reported to the public is unfair because it includes teachers who are out on long-term leave.

The school made headlines last year when the district’s Board of Trustees approved the firing of the entire teaching staff under a federal model used for failing schools. Just 7 percent of 11th graders tested in October 2009 were proficient in math. The firings caught the attention of President Obama, who called the move an example of holding teachers accountable for poor student performance.

The teachers were rehired months later after agreeing to work a longer school day and make other changes. But the school year is off to a rocky start amid reports of student disciplinary problems and an absenteeism rate among teachers that administrators consider alarming.

Students staged a walkout last week, and administrators say they have refrained from giving grades to hundreds of students because teacher attendance has been so spotty that there is no real way to gauge student performance.

“What they’ve said to me is that the climate in terms of teaching and learning is actually worse this year than last year — not for lack of trying,’’ Weingarten said.

Weingarten said Chafee’s team should include State Education Commissioner Deborah Gist, the Central Falls superintendent, and the president of the local teachers union.

A spokesman for Chafee did not return a call seeking comment.

Last year during the governor’s race, Chafee had called for mediation between the administration and teaching staff.