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A principal is fired, invited to Italy after students are shown Michelangelo's 'David'

One parent complained about the nudity in the Renaissance sculpture, comparing it to pornographic material.
Franco Origlia
/
Getty Images
One parent complained about the nudity in the Renaissance sculpture, comparing it to pornographic material.

Every year, sixth-grade students at Tallahassee Classical School have been taught and shown a picture of Michelangelo's "David" statue, but this month, things went awry — sparking an apology letter to parents, an emergency school board meeting and a principal's resignation.

On Monday even the museum that houses the sculpture in Italy took notice. Cecilie Hollberg, director of the Galleria dell'Accademia, told the Associated Press that she was astonished at the controversy and welcomed the principal, school board, parents and student body to come view the "purity" of the statue in person.

Dario Nardella, mayor of Florence, Italy, also wrote on Twitterthat he personally invites the Florida educator who was let go to the city to be recognized, adding that whoever teaches such art deserves respect.

The squabble had been brewing for weeks in the K-12 charter school in Leon County, Fla., after students in a sixth-grade art history class were taught about the Renaissance. Alongside the Michelangelo sculpture, the lesson included images of the paintings "The Creation of Adam" and "Birth of Venus."

At the heart of the anger was that, unlike in years past, parents were not informed of the artwork ahead of time. Hope Carrasquilla, who had been principal at Tallahassee Classical for about nine months, said an email notifying parents had been written, but the administration accidently forgot to send it.

"I made the assumption that the letter went out, and I didn't follow up on it," she told NPR. "It is my responsibility to make sure these things happen, but honestly we did not have to send out a letter regarding Renaissance art."

According to Carrasquilla, two parents were upset they did not receive a letter and one parent complained more specifically about the nudity, equating it to pornographic material.

The school later sent out an apology to parents of the sixth grade class for the oversight. Carrasquilla also spoke to the art history teacher, who made an off-color comment asking students to not tell their parents about the lesson.

Despite the measures, earlier this month Barney Bishop III, the chair of the school board, met with Carrasquilla and gave her the option to either resign or be terminated without cause. Carrasquilla ultimately decided to resign.

"I have always desired good for Tallahassee Classical School. I care deeply for the scholars, faculty, staff, and parents. I am not about promoting myself or a political agenda," she wrote in a letter to the board last week.

Carrasquilla said she was not given a specific reason for the ultimatum, adding that while she suspects the art history lesson played a role, she also felt Bishop had been "unhappy" with her for months.

Bishop similarly said there were multiple concerns that led to Carrasquilla's departure. He said that he could not explain further for legal reasons, but that he didn't believe the principal was aligned with the school's values and mission.

"It's not the showing of the picture, it's the process," Bishop told NPR. "Parents are entitled to decide whether any topic, any subject, any use of particular sensitive words are going to be discussed in the classroom. If they don't feel that it's appropriate for the age of their child, they're entitled to make that decision."

Over the past few years control of school curriculum has been hotly contested, both in Florida and across the United States. On Friday, Republicans in the U.S. House passed national "Parents Bill of Rights" legislationto boost parents' access to information about their child's education.

Carrasquilla says that, as a mother and educator, she believes parents and schools should be in a partnership. But she stresses that there needs to be a balance.

"What doesn't work is when you have parents who are trying to say, 'This is your curriculum, this is what you're supposed to be teaching,' " she said.

To Bishop, a major misconception is that valuing parental rights will decide what is taught. He noted that despite a few parents' complaints about the "David," the artwork will remain in the curriculum.

"We're going to teach it regardless of whether parents are in favor of it or not," he said. "But if they're not in favor of it, we're going to give them alternative curriculum."

Last week Cara Wynn, a dean at Tallahassee Classical was promoted to interim headmaster for the rest of the school year. Bishop said the board would evaluate her leadership skills and decide later if she would become the school's leader permanently.

Meanwhile, Carrasquilla said she is unsure what she will do next. Having worked at the school for less than two years, she described her time there as cut short and her said her dreams for Tallahassee Classical have been dashed.

"I miss the teachers, the students," she said. "I felt like I was supposed to be there, like I had a purpose. I love classical education and I want everyone to be taught that way, so I miss that."

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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Juliana Kim
Juliana Kim is a weekend reporter for Digital News, where she adds context to the news of the day and brings her enterprise skills to NPR's signature journalism.