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Youth Hair Model Reeling from Private School Expulsion

Family Fights for Academic Records

For years, Kuumba Learning Center has been a private school of choice for those in the D.C. area seeking an African-centered education for their children. One such student was Nyirah Newton, a budding hair model from Southeast who sought to escape the bullying experienced at her neighborhood school.

However, changes to Kuumba’s hair policy would eventually set the stage for Nyirah’s expulsion and an ongoing battle for her academic records.

“This was a contradiction from the year before,” said Nyirah’s mother, Oluwatoyin Pyne, also a hair model. “We’ve been stripped of our identity, and it is the main thing we can control. To stifle that, to conform to their way of creativity. The policy is subjective.”

Pyne recalled learning about Kuumba’s hair policy in September, right after Nyirah’s hairstylist installed her loc extensions. By that time, Pyne and Nyirah had often traveled to New York City to participate in photo shoots that Pyne said has allowed her daughter to earn money and explore her interests.

After some discussion, Kuumba allowed Nyirah to wear a headwrap. For the next two months, however, up until the time that Maja Rasheed, owner and director of Kuumba, allegedly lashed out at the mother and daughter, Pyne unsuccessfully attempted to meet with the school’s board of directors and explain how their new hair policy and other rules forbidding colorful nails and jewelry unfairly targeted Black people in D.C.

On Nov. 12, what would be Nyirah’s last day as a Kuumba student, differences over Kuumba’s hair policy came to a head in what Pyne alleged to be an outburst by Rasheed and assault by a senior staff member that shook her to the core and made Nyirah burst into tears.

An Exit Confirmation Form, signed by Rasheed and obtained by The Informer, designates family and transportation challenges as reasons for Nyirah’s severance, though it doesn’t specify which party ended the relationship. Since December, Nyirah has been home-schooled while Pyne has embarked on an effort to retain academic records from Kuumba that would allow Nyirah to transfer to her correct grade within the D.C. public school and public charter school systems.

Administrators at Kuumba Learning Center declined to answer The Informer’s questions about its hair policy. In briefly speaking about the circumstances of Nyirah’s departure, administrators said her family withdrew her.

Kuumba Learning Center, located along Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue in Congress Heights, provides year-round nontraditional programming in academics, culture, and the arts for students of all ages. In three row houses, it operates alongside the Kuumba Preparatory School of the Arts, which serves students in the middle and high school grades by immersing them in African culture through the various disciplines and art mediums.

Kuumba Learning Center counts among a handful of private African-centered schools in the D.C. metropolitan area whose students have gone on to make a mark in a bevy of career fields and industries.

Former Kuumba parent Chioma Iwuoha said the allure of an African-centered education piqued her interest, and compelled her decision to enroll her daughter in Kuumba during the 2015-2016 academic year.

More than a year later, Iwuoha turned her attention to other D.C. private schools, due in part to her concerns about what she described as the lack of transparency and rigor at Kuumba. Though she and Rasheed had long enjoyed a cordial relationship, Iwuoha said Rasheed’s attitude, and the school climate, became more hostile after Rasheed learned she wanted to transfer her daughter to another school.

“Maja Rasheed berated me over the phone and in person,” Iwuoha said. “A teacher wrote me a recommendation letter to go to the new school. She cussed out the teacher and created a new policy that all recommendations would have to go through her. I didn’t have major issues [with Kuumba]. They just didn’t communicate well.”

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One Comment

  1. My experience at this school was horrific! My daughter was injured twice – the first time requiring 4 stitches in her tongue. The second time, she had a fist sized knot on her head that Mama Maja placed a fruit sticker over so that I wouldn’t notice when we came to pick her up. Things unraveled from there. She lied about her injury, refused to share the incident report. It got so ugly that we decided to withdraw her and like Ms. Pyne experiences they refused to release anything – not even her belongings!

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