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Lots Of Confusion Over Teacher Firings At Howard University Middle School

Students protest outside Howard University Middle School of Mathematics and Science.
Victoria M. Walker
Howard University
Students protest outside Howard University Middle School of Mathematics and Science.

Updated on Feb. 4 at 12:30 p.m. ET: The board of directors for the Howard University Middle School of Mathematics and Science issued a statement on the dismissal of three social studies teachers, indicating that the school is governed by an independent nonprofit organization and regulated by the D.C. Charter School Board. Its also confirms that three teachers resigned from the university effective Jan. 27. From the statement:

"The teaching of African and African-American history and culture was not a factor in the acceptance of the resignations. This curriculum includes a content strand centered on an enduring understanding of African cultural systems. [School principal Dr. Angelicque Blackmon], recruited to Howard University Middle School of Mathematics and Science through a national search, has a long track record of engaging African American students and teachers in culturally responsive STEM education."

Howard University president and member of the middle school's board of directors, Dr. Wayne A.I. Frederick, confirmed that the board is investigating: "Concerns expressed by parents, teachers and all constituents are appreciated and will be addressed by the board in a comprehensive manner, beginning this week."

Our original post continues:

A D.C. charter school founded by and located at Howard University has been embroiled for days in an increasingly public fight over the firing of three teachers. Parents and students claim the teachers were dismissed for teaching Black History Month lessons. These parents and students have mobilized in protest, and social media are abuzz.

But there's a whole lot about this story that's unclear. Here's what we know — and what we don't.

According to WJLA, the teachers were given pink slips in late January. Several parents have claimed that this happened in front of students, and that the teachers were escorted out of the building by police officers.

The head of a parents group told The Washington Post that the teachers were already planning to step down when they were terminated:

"Adilah Bilal, president of Parents in Action, a parent group at the school, said the social studies teachers came to the group on Jan. 22 and said they were planning to resign. Bilal said the reason the teachers gave was that they wanted to introduce more African history into a curriculum that focuses heavily on Greek and Roman history, but they claimed the administration did not support them. One teacher said that she had been written up for a lesson she gave about former mayor Marion Barry near the time of his death, Bilal said.

"She said the teachers had planned to resign [that] Friday, so they could stay long enough to help students meet the Feb. 2 deadline to apply to high school through the citywide enrollment lottery. In the meantime, the parents resolved to hire a mediator to help the teachers and administrators work out the dispute. But early last week, administrators asked the teachers to leave immediately, she said."

On Monday, at least two dozen students at the middle school (which has about 300 students) walked out in protest, waving pan-African flags and holding signs. Some shared a list of demands, including "new social studies teachers ... who will be treated with respect" and that the school "stop tracking students for school to prison pipeline."

It would be surprising if the parents' allegations turned out to be true — for one thing, the school is at Howard University, one of the country's most well-known historically black universities, where the marching band famously plays the "Black National Anthem" before its football games. (The university's president, Wayne Frederick, sits on the charter school's board of directors.) And the middle school has observed Black History Month before — here's a picture from a 2008 school assembly celebrating it.

In the meantime, the local chapter of the NAACP has been conducting its own investigation. Chapter head Akosua Ali told The Washington Post on Monday that the organization doesn't believe the teachers were dismissed for teaching black history, but the Post doesn't put forward another reason for the firings.

The school hasn't publicly responded to the allegations but told me a statement will be released in the next few days.

The city's public charter school board posted a statement on its website saying the city's charter schools "are allowed the sole discretion on specific academic decisions including the hiring and termination of their staff and teachers." Notably, teachers at charter schools are typically not unionized the way traditional public school teachers are, which means they are easier to terminate.

We've reached out to the NAACP and will update this post if we hear back.

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Corrected: February 2, 2015 at 11:00 PM CST
An earlier version of this story incorrectly said the NAACP did not believe the teachers weren't dismissed for teaching black history.
Gene Demby is the co-host and correspondent for NPR's Code Switch team.