For months, Palm Beach County School Superintendent Art Johnson has said he wants to shut down the only African-centered public school in the state. But on Wednesday, June 9, as the school board was set to vote on his recommendation to terminate the charter of Joseph Littles-Nguzo Saba charter school of Riviera Beach, Johnson surprisingly changed his tune.
He told the board he would be willing to give the school what would amount to a “last chance” to get on track, in essence keeping the school’s doors open. The board agreed.
The school is not out of the woods. Johnson, along with school board staff, will work with the school to set up very specific goals that the school will have to meet. The two sides have agreed to negotiate the terms by July 31. If the school doesn’t agree to the stipulations outlined by the school district, Johnson said he would recommend termination of the charter, effective immediately.
School founder Amefika Geuka said he is not thrilled with Johnson’s new suggestion, calling it “ridiculous.”
“Frankly speaking, I would just rather they’d had the vote…let it go up or down, whichever way it went,” Geuka said immediately following Wednesday’s proceedings.
Geuka said he believes the superintendent ultimately still wants to close the school. And though Geuka concedes the school has financial problems, he also said he believes much of the school district’s accusations against them have been unwarranted and unfounded.
During the hearing, school district attorney Corey Smith said the school’s charter should be revoked because the school has had persistent problems with governance, fiscal management and poor academics.
Although the school has consistently been rated a “D” school, one of its founders, Bettye Dawson, told the board the school has also made consistent gains.
‘‘D’ does not mean dumb,” she told board members at the hearing. “We may not have gotten the “A” or “B” but yes, we have made gains.”
In fact, when 3rd grade FCAT scores were released May 27, Nguzo Saba shocked school officials by posting the largest gains of any elementary school in Palm Beach County. Of all 106 elementary schools in the county, none had greater improvements than Nguzo Saba.
Last year, only 13 percent of the school’s third graders received a passing grade in math.
This year, 73 percent passed. And in reading, 64 percent were at or above grade level this year, compared with 21 percent last year.
School Board members Dr. Debra Robinson, M.D., and Frank Barbieri Jr. said such improvement was too hard to ignore.
“I’m not willing to pull the rug from underneath these children,” Robinson said.
She and Barbieri lauded the school for its success with a difficult student population. Many of the students at the school have severe behavioral problems or have been deemed “intellectually incapable of learning.”
Louis Jean Baptiste, a former Nguzo Saba student, told the board that he was one of those “problem” students before his mother enrolled him at the school. As a result of his time at Nguzo Saba, he says he learned self-discipline and developed self-esteem, and went on to graduate from high school in three years.
Today, he is an honors student at Florida A & M University.
Diriki Geuka, the founder’s son, said although he had no discipline problems, attending the school helped shape him into the young man he is today. He, too, is an honors student at FAMU. He told the board members that if they shut the doors to the school, they would be shutting off the potential of those who could go on to do great things in their community and in the world.
Board members ultimately decided the school should be given another chance to continue making a difference in the lives of their students, for many of whom Nguzo Saba is their last hope. Robinson suggested, however, that the school district come up with specific measures to help the school become more fiscally sound and more accountable in governance.
Johnson will set forth new goals, stipulations and deliverables for the school no later than July 31. The school would have to agree to them, or face termination once again.
Photo: Amefika Geuka