Not The Lesson They Intended

Carla Rivera, Los Angeles Times, March 19, 2007

Administrators at a Los Angeles charter school forbade students from reciting a poem about civil rights icon Emmett Till during a Black History Month program recently, saying his story was unsuitable for an assembly of young children.

Teachers and students said the administration suggested that the Till case—in which the teenager was beaten to death in Mississippi after allegedly whistling at a white woman—was not fitting for a program intended to be celebratory, and that Till’s actions could be viewed as sexual harassment.

The decision by Celerity Nascent Charter School leaders roiled the southwest Los Angeles campus and led to the firing of seventh-grade teacher Marisol Alba and math teacher Sean Strauss, who had signed one of several letters of protest written by the students.

The incident highlights the tenuous job security for mostly nonunion teachers in charter schools, which are publicly financed but independently run. California has more than 600 charter schools, and their ranks continue to swell. According to the California Teachers Assn., staff at fewer than 10% of charter schools are represented by unions.

“I never thought it would come to this,” said Alba, who helped her students prepare the Till presentation, in which they were going to read a poem and lay flowers in a circle. “I thought the most that would happen to me [after the event was canceled] is that I’d get talked to and it would be turned into a learning and teaching experience.”

School officials refused to discuss the particulars of the teachers’ firings but said the issue highlights the difficulty of providing positive images for students who are often bombarded by negative cultural stereotypes.

“Our whole goal is how do we get these kids to not look at all of the bad things that could happen to them and instead focus on the process of how do we become the next surgeon or the next politician,” said Celerity co-founder and Executive Director Vielka McFarlane. “We don’t want to focus on how the history of the country has been checkered but on how do we dress for success, walk proud and celebrate all the accomplishments we’ve made.”

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Many parents said their children affirmed that account. Marcia Alston, mother of a seventh-grader, called the school to say she was appalled at its interpretation of history and the treatment of the teachers. She said that in the conversation, the principal used the term “rude” to describe Till’s actions.

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Frank Wells, a spokesman for the California Teachers Assn., said the Celerity incident highlights the importance his group has placed on organizing charter school teachers statewide.

“This points out the vulnerability of teachers in some charters where they don’t have safeguards and can be fired for any or no reason,” Wells said.

Celerity Nascent (the name is derived from words meaning swift or accelerated development) opened in the Jefferson Park area last school year as a K-6 charter campus with about 330 students. Seventh grade was added this year, and there are plans to add eighth grade next year.

Of its nearly 500 students, 80% are African American and about 19% are Latino. McFarlane, who is black, said 65% of the staff members live in the neighborhood and that part of the school’s mission is to create jobs in the community.

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“There’s no celebration in the Emmett Till story,” said Stephen Weathers, president of the school’s parent organization. “He was beaten for whistling at a white woman, and I don’t want my daughter to know that in the fourth grade. I don’t think a celebration of Black History Month is a forum for that story. It’s important, but that wasn’t the stage for it.”

Scot Brown, associate professor of history and African American studies at UCLA, said it was unfortunate that school officials and the teachers did not find common ground.

“I’m surprised that the teachers and principal could not work out a way for students to do this presentation in a way that highlights the significance and importance of Emmett Till’s loss to the larger black freedom struggle,” said Brown. “It’s much bigger than the acts of violence you don’t want kids exposed to. . ..

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