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Not the lesson they had intended

Times Staff Writer

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.

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“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.”

McFarlane said details of the Till case were too graphic for an assembly that included kindergartners. The principal, Grace Canada, could not be reached for comment. McFarlane, speaking for the school, said her review of the incident did not support the teachers’ allegations that Canada had used the term sexual harassment to describe Till’s behavior.

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But Alba said that when the principal informed the class that they could not recite their poem, she gave the example of a construction worker whistling at her as she walked down the street.

“She said that she would be offended by that and that what Emmett Till did could be considered sexual harassment,” said Alba. “She used the phrase a couple of times and when I objected, she said ‘OK, inappropriately whistled at a woman.’ ”

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.

“Mr. Strauss and Ms. Alba were excellent teachers,” said Alston. “The fact that they and the students had signed a letter, I thought, was good; it was something they were passionate about and it could be used as a learning tool.”

Verna Hampton, whose daughter was in Alba’s homeroom and signed a letter, said she was especially offended that the incident occurred during Black History Month. Hampton said her daughter told her there was nothing offensive in the letter she signed.

“Those teachers should not have lost their jobs for standing up for what they felt was right; that sends the wrong message,” Hampton said. “The kids didn’t even get a chance to say goodbye.”

Alba, 30, began teaching at Celerity when it opened in the fall of 2005 shortly after she received her credential. She taught social studies and science and is now looking for another job. She is writing to the school’s board of trustees to request a hearing, and Strauss has drafted a letter to the board complaining that his firing was unjustified. Under the contract signed by the teachers, they can be fired with or without cause.

In the letter terminating his employment, dated March 6, Strauss was said to have been “disparaging the school to students and parents and authorizing by physical signature a nonsupportive message to the administrative staff.”

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According to Alba and Strauss, individual students wrote 10 to 15 protest letters, some of which were signed by other students. Neither the teachers nor the students made copies, they said.

“The kids felt strongly about this, and because these are my students, I felt one of my jobs was to pay attention to them,” said Strauss, who is earning a credential at Cal State Dominguez Hills. “It’s important anywhere a teacher works that the employer be willing to listen and keep an open mind and maybe even be willing to change their mind if they learn something new.”

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.

Most students are below grade level in reading when they enroll, and many have behavioral problems, school officials said. McFarlane, who worked for 14 years as a teacher and principal in the Los Angeles Unified School District, said that with its focus on project-based, “culturally responsive” learning, student achievement is rising and parents are more involved in their children’s learning.

Gary L. Larson, a spokesman for the California Charter Schools Assn., said Celerity is well-run and its administrators highly regarded. He defended the school’s right to judge the appropriateness of the Till presentation and to dismiss teachers.

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“If they felt that it was too sensitive in nature, and as long as they are following approved procedures, they have the authority,” Larson said.

Many parents agreed with the school’s decision to omit the Till presentation. During February’s Black History Month program, the seventh-graders’ poem, based on the book “A Wreath for Emmett Till,” was replaced by a reading on the civil rights struggle as a whole.

“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 ....

“It sounds to me that by laying a wreath and saying a poem, the students and teachers were working through the meaning of his sacrifice to the black freedom struggle, and that’s very important.”

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carla.rivera@latimes.com


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