For six agonizing months, the School District of Palm Beach County held the possibility of closure over the head of the Joseph Littles-Nguzo Saba Charter School of Riviera Beach. But in a rather uneventful, yet important hearing on Wednesday, July 28, the school board voted unanimously to allow Nguzo Saba, the only African-centered public school in Florida, to remain open.
After a hard-fought battle, Nguzo Saba founder Amefika Geuka is glad the matter has come to a successful end.
“It’s a victory for the school itself, and for the students who depend upon the school,” he said, just moments after the vote. He said he doesn’t consider it a personal victory.
“For myself, it’s a relief, and now we can get on with the real business of trying to help these students.”
Geuka has been critical of the process.
“This was not inadvertent. This was an intentional attack on the right of our school to exist and to serve these children. And the attack was mounted, not withstanding the fact that – even the people who mounted the attack, know that these children need our school,” he said emphatically.
Palm Beach County School Superintendent Arthur Johnson notified Geuka in February of his intentions to recommend termination of the school’s charter. He cited the school’s financial distress, governance problems, and a failure to meet academic standards as the reasons the school would be shut down.
In a school board meeting on June 9, however, board members disagreed, and voted to give the school another chance. They heard testimonies from several former students who are now honors students in college. In addition, in a surprise development, the school’s third-grade FCAT scores this year posted the highest gains out of all 106 elementary schools in Palm Beach County.
Board members were reluctant to close the school with those kinds of successes. Although Nguzo Saba is consistently rated with a “D” grade, officials with the school successfully argued that with the population of students it serves, it is amazing the school has not gotten an “F” grade. Most of the school’s students are considered “intellectually unteachable.” Also, many of the students have behavioral problems and have been rejected from the public school system.
The school has not yet received its letter grade for this year.
As part of the agreement to keep the school open, the school had to agree to certain stipulations to help it to get and stay on track. The school must make a “good- faith effort” to add a certified public accountant and a lawyer to its board. The school board felt this was necessary to help the school, which owes $165,000 in back rent, manage its finances.
Nguzo Saba officials say the debt mounted when they were in a previous location and their monthly rent was $20,000. Due to the school’s enrollment, however, it only received $6,000 per month in capital outlay funds from the state to pay for rent.
The capital outlay funds vary per charter school, depending on enrollment. Due to the school’s inability to keep up with the rent, Geuka, his wife, and the school’s principal made personal loans to the school to keep it afloat. They have since moved into a new building where the rent is now manageable at $6,000 per month. The school has worked out a plan to satisfy its outstanding debts.
Geuka said the school would be better served with a skilled fund-raiser on its board, as well as a highly skilled marketing and public relations manager. He says the school doesn’t need help managing its finances, it simply needs more finances.
He also said a PR person could help market the school, thus bringing up the enrollment. Enrollment for the fall term is expected to be up, however.
The school is being asked to hold monthly board meetings until its first review. It’s also asked to provide documentation that its teachers are highly qualified and to provide an inventory of all loan debt and lease payments, among other things. Geuka is confident that all stipulations will be met.
Principal Delores Smart says she is ready to take on the new school year without distraction.
“I’m ready to get to work. We have a lot to do. I’m ready to put all my energy in one direction. We’ve been so distracted with [the possibility of closure], and it has been mentally and physically draining. Now we can concentrate on the academics, and our students and parents,” she said. “I feel rejuvenated.”
Geuka and Smart say they are looking forward to a successful year for the school and for their students. They say the victory has given them a new beginning, so much so that they now need to hire additional staff.
Photo: Amefika Geuka