Wednesday, March 03, 2010

The Central Falls 93: Obama, press reset

The word “backlash” is actually being used about a so-called school reform maneuver so shortsighted and coldblooded that almost no one is speaking up in support of it — almost no one but President Obama.

Last month, all 93 members of the faculty, administration and support staff of Central Falls High school in Central Falls, R.I., were told that they’re fired as of the end of this school year.

Then, on Monday, President Obama spoke up, according to the New York Times.

“Mr. Obama said he supported the school board’s decision to dismiss the faculty and staff members. ‘Our kids get only one chance at an education and we need to get it right,’ he said.”

(Obama’s lightweight, resume-faking Secretary of Education praised the move too, but he’s not really worth devoting blogosphere bandwidth to.)

Despite the current climate in which blaming, bashing and demonizing teachers has become a comfortable and popular theme in all kinds of commentary, Obama’s remark actually seems to have provoked dismay and outrage. In the most current news article showing online as I write this, the Providence Journal uses the term “wildfire.”

“The wildfire of national debate over the mass firings at Central Falls High School spread further Tuesday, when the executive council of the AFL-CIO unanimously condemned the removal of all 93 teachers, support staff and administrators at the city’s only high school.
The executive council said its members were “appalled” that President Obama and U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan had endorsed the terminations in recent comments, and said the firings will not help the 800 students at the high school, which is one of the poorest and lowest-performing schools in Rhode Island.”

Well, I have a proposal. Those 93 teachers, support staff and administrators should get together, pull the necessary strings (which are in their reach right now while the story is hot), and request a meeting with the president — all 93 of them. If Obama could have a beer with Henry Louis Gates and that cop whose name I’ve now forgotten, surely he’s willing to spend a little time hearing the viewpoint of 93 people whom he has essentially attacked sight unseen. While it would be hospitable for him to invite them to the White House, it would be a lot classier for him to have a soothing spot of tea catered in at Central Falls High School. (And he desperately needs to show a little class right now; his supply is perilously low.) I’m sure the cafeteria has enough room to seat the Central Falls 93, Obama and his entourage.

Two years ago, it would have been impossible for me to imagine saying this, but I also propose that President Obama emulate something San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom has been doing. I’m not normally Newsom’s biggest fan, with the exception of back in February 2004 when his then-revolutionary gay marriages were spreading joy through San Francisco.

But lately, my city's mayor has been doing something admirable after being challenged by Patricia Gray, the longtime rock-star principal of San Francisco’s Balboa High School. Newsom has been spending Saturdays calling the homes of students who are chronically truant from their San Francisco public schools. The San Francisco Chronicle’s Matier and Ross political insider column wrote about this in a Jan. 31 column (not available online.)

“It has been a real eye-opener,” Newsom told the Chronicle. “In just about every case,” Matier and Ross wrote, “the family is in crisis.” In other words, truancy isn’t all the fault of inept teachers and uncaring schools after all, Newsom is learning.

At an overflowing Town Hall meeting in San Francisco, called by public-school parents to address the current budget crisis, Newsom brought up his calls (and visits) to the homes of truants, and reiterated that point quite emphatically. The truants are almost always living in households battered by the worst life can dump on them, and it’s unrealistic to expect educators to magically cure it all, and to blame them for not working miracles.

Well, if Newsom — who I never would have thought could hold a candle to Obama in depth and thoughtfulness — can accept Patricia Gray’s challenge and gain such new understanding, where’s the president?

I hope to read about that meeting in the Central Falls High School cafeteria soon.

For more on the Central Falls firings, here’s a snippet of commentary by veteran Washington Post education writer Valerie Strauss:

“…93 names were called for firing — 74 classroom teachers, plus reading specialists, guidance counselors, physical education teachers, the school psychologist, the principal and three assistant principals, according to the Providence Journal. Not one was good enough to stay.
Some of the teachers at the city's only high school cried, but the committee held firm.
It's no wonder that Education Secretary Arne Duncan applauded the move, saying the committee members were "showing courage and doing the right thing for kids."
Courage, indeed.
Now, all they have to do is find 93 excellent professionals to take their places. Recruiting the best educators should be easy, especially when you can offer them life in a very poor town and a job with no security.”

-- Guest blogger Caroline Grannan,
San Francisco public school parent and advocate


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