One of Rhode Island’s most controversial school leaders is retiring. Fran Gallo, the superintendent of Central Falls public schools, steps down on Friday. Her tenure included the firing and re-hiring of high school teachers, which thrust Rhode Island into the center of a national debate over public education. Gallo sat down with Rhode Island Public Radio’s Elisabeth Harrison at her office in Central Falls to look back on the firings, and what she’s learned from Rhode Island’s smallest school district.
Let's get the elephant in the room out of the way. Gallo has no regrets about firing every teacher at Central Falls High School in 2010
"No, I followed the rules," Gallo said. "So I don’t think I would have done anything differently."
The teachers were later rehired, but the mass firing came in response to a federal program aimed at overhauling troubled schools. As news of the firings spread, Central Falls became ground zero for reporters from national medial outlets including NPR.
"I may have been much more public during all of the meetings that led up to the final decision," said Gallo. "That would have given everyone a clearer idea of why it all happened."
Five years later, many of the fired (and re-hired) teachers have left Central Falls. The high school is no longer receiving federal funding for its turnaround effort, but a study conducted several years after the overhaul found encouraging signs like a significant increase in the graduation rate.
For Gallo, there is more work to be done.
"But of course education is never done, it's evolving," she said.
After eight years leading Central Falls schools, Gallo brings up another point of pride: elementary school test scores have been improving, and a dual language program shows particular promise.
"Our students deserve a lot more both in terms of what they know and can do in two languages," Gallo said. "We should not consider English language learners as deficient."
According to Gallo, 1,000 Central Falls students attend charter schools, which does contribute to a loss of state funding in a district that is almost entirely dependent on the state. Gallo acknowledges the money side of the equation presents a challenge.
"I think it's a continuous wakeup call for the district," Gallo said.
Still, she strongly contests arguments that the growth of charter schools should be slowed or stopped altogether.
"We're fools to do that," Gallo said. "These are schools where brothers and sisters of the children from Central Falls are excelling, paving a new future for themselves. We’re not even close to their level of achievement."
Gallo works her final day in Central Falls on Friday. As for what's next, she will say only that she looks forward to getting reacquainted with her house and has made no long term decisions.
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