Teachers speak out; Gist responds to claims

About seven hundred educators of the NEARI union finally had a chance to speak out.

The teachers, school social workers, and other related education employees filled the Cranston West High School Auditorium Monday night, most wearing a white arm band saying "Let Teachers Teach."

The message, they say, is aimed at Rhode Island Commissioner of Education Deborah Gist. NEARI members contend that some of the standardized testing and teachers evaluation systems Gist has pushed so hard for keeps teachers too busy with paperwork, instead of allowing them the proper amount of time to focus on actual student progress, learning and achievement.

At the podium, it was veteran teacher Darlene Netcoh, who drew some of the most frequent and heartiest outbursts of applause.

Netcoh was passionate as she closed her speech and saying about Gist, "She's got no business in Rhode Island, tell her to take her little show on the road, we're done."

Outside the forum, NBC 10 asked the government relations director for NEARI why so many of the state's teachers stood up in front of the crowd complaining about the current system for teachers evaluations, and standardized testing required for graduation.

"It's taking teacher's away from their profession of teaching and (getting the students) learning, and having them do too much paperwork, and too much time away from the kids. That's a problem, and I think that there needs to be a new direction (to fix it)," said Patrick Crowley.

"We have a commissioner who does not respect teachers; she does not respect public education. We want to see the commissioner either respect us, or have the board of education send her out of town," said Ron Beaupre, president of the Pawtucket Teachers Alliance and a 4th grade teacher.

"I know that we are going in the wrong direction when teachers, parents, and students express doubt and concern about the commissioners policies in initiatives, and are ignored," said Danny Wall, history teacher at the Juanita Sanchez Complex in Providence.

One union member read a letter from Sean Doyle, the President of the West Warwick Teachers Alliance.

Doyle writes, "The commissioner's agenda has not lead us to the successes that she had promised. Teachers are engaged in many important initiatives, but most are finding that the speed and weight of her rigid timelines are physically and emotionally overwhelming."

"We need somebody who is going to work, and actually speak to the people who work with the children in the buildings who work with the kids, know what the problems are, and come up with solutions that we can all work together on," said Jodi Stanley, a Pawtucket teacher.

And Stanley said she does not think the commissioner is listening to their concerns

"This evaluation system allegedly was supposed to improve teaching and learning, and it has done neither. It is wasting the time of teachers having to upload useless documents to a useless data collection system, and it is ruining student learning because it is too focused on standardized tests that don't mean anything."

Rhode Island Board of Education Member Colleen Callahan, who had been sitting on the stage listening intently to each and every complaint for about three hours said, "Today was an opportunity for us to hear from teaches. We were invited to come and listen to their comments, which we did, I like to think that this is part of the ongoing process that the board members will engage in over the next number of weeks, to gather some evidence, to hear from the public at large as we make this very important decision."

Larry Purtill of the Board of Education added, "Colleen and I will take back to the rest of the Board of Education everything we heard tonight, and all the concerns of teachers, and they are the concerns that we have been hearing for a long time now, and they verified those concerns, and we will make sure the board of education understands, and knows what the teachers of Rhode Island feel."

After the meeting NBC 10 had a chance to sit down with Commissioner Deborah Gist.

After being presented with each of the comments listed above, Gist said, in part, "One of the things I hear sometimes is that this is being done without feedback, without input. That's just actually not the case. We have listened, and not only have we listened, we have responded to the feedback that we have gotten about everything that we've been implementing, and we've made significant changes to the things that we're putting into place. So I think what we need to do is continue to listen, and this is a moment in time where there's clearly lot of concern that we need to take very seriously, and I absolutely do."

"I think we have to know that all of us want the same thing, which is for our students to receive the best possible education, and while we're not going to agree on everything, we're not going to agree on every step it will take in order to get there, we have to know that we can sit down together and work through the challenges that we have. I absolutely will look to my board's leadership for the decision that they make on my future in the state. I feel really confident about the work that we've done, and I know that we have a lot more work to do," Gist said.

The Rhode Island Board of Education will meet Thursday night armed with all of the information and testimony they gathered at Monday's rally and will then begin to discuss their next move in executive session.

Education Commissioner Deborah Gist said she's actually not shocked that the teachers are having such growing pains. She said that's because she has implemented major changes in the past four year, and adds that along with major change comes some fear, and even backlash at times, but, Gist says, if given the time, students, parents and teachers will see that the state's public education system, is on the right track.

Gist said she was not invited to the union rally held on Monday; however the Commissioner did confirm that a complete transcript of the comments made at the forum will be provided for her to read, and Gist even promised, to be open to suggestions from the teachers if they have ways they think would improve the entire system.