paula-thompson-with-children_web.jpgWEST PALM BEACH — After a decade of service to Palm Beach County’s disaffected youth, the students and faculty of an African-centered charter school are hoping to weather a storm of financial uncertainty.

The national economic crisis is dire. Foreclosures, failing banks and unemployment are the fodder for incessant headlines and office water cooler conversations around the country.

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Budget cuts and furloughs are affecting South Florida public schools, as well, including the Joseph Littles-Nguzo Saba Charter School in West Palm Beach, which is struggling to keep its doors open.

The school for at-risk youth has been unable to make its rent payments. School founder Amefika Geuka said he believes the school will continue to defy the odds, as it has in the past.

He said the school’s financial issues are a result of inadequate funding from the state, along with a number of severe budget cuts this year.

The Palm Beach County School District has options that may help charter schools like his, he said.

“Someone needs to question the Palm Beach County School District as to why they have not opted to exercise their discretion to share local school tax dollars for buildings with charter schools,” he said.

Officials with the Palm Beach County School District, however, see it differently.

A district financial specialist said  budget cuts are a reality for all Palm Beach County schools, not just Nguzo Saba. All schools received notice of the 2-percent cuts, and were continuously advised about how to deal with the new financial restraints that went into effect in December.

But according to the school district, Nguzo Saba has other challenges.

“The real reason for the school’s financial trouble is poor financial management on their part,” said one school district financial specialist who did not want her name to be published.  “And not following the financial guidelines provided to them by the school board.”

The rent for the two-story, 17,962-square-foot building is about $17,933 per month.  The building at 5829 Corporate Way in West Palm Beach accommodates nine classrooms, a teachers’ lounge, two administrative offices and a large cafeteria. 

The school is at least $300,000 in debt, according to the school district. Geuka said the amount is closer to $150,000.

The district provides $6,200 per student for the charter school.  Nguzo Saba projected that it would have 140 students enrolled for the 2009 school year, which means that the district provided about $868,000.  In fact, only 99 students enrolled, meaning the school  earned only about $613,800, the district official said.

Thus, the school district reduced the amount it paid the school by around $255,000 this year based on the lower enrollment.

Nevertheless, Geuka said he is hopeful that his school will pull through once again, and he is optimistic that it will collect money from the Stimulus Act recently signed by President Barack Obama.

Like Obama’s new presidency, the Joseph Littles-Nguzo Saba Charter School has been a beacon of hope since opening its doors in 1999.

Geuka and faculty members dared to take in students who were being forced out of public schools due to repeat suspensions and other issues, and provided them with remediation in a more secure environment.

Faculty members do not merely address formal and academic education, but also a social and self-disciplinary education.  The school provides students with a sense of family and belonging that is best suited to meet their individual learning needs, Geuka said.

“Our school is special because the children are at the center of the universe,” he said. “The whole world revolves around them.”

Today, 99 students attend classes in a setting that offers daily Afro-centric teachings.  School begins promptly at 7:30 a.m. with breakfast.
Then there is a gathering each morning for a ceremony called Umoja, a Swahili word that means “unity.’’

Both staff and students gather for 20 to 30 minutes for Umoja, which involves singing and dancing, reciting the Pledge of Allegiance, and a pledge to a Pan-African, black liberation flag.

Several students at the school described the ritual as a tool for their daily walk.  The Umoja ceremony includes the “Principles of Ma’at,”
which reaffirm each student’s individual purpose and  allows each to set goals for the day.  Students can also voice possible concerns or issues, and work to resolve those issues.

“It is truly a character-building tool for all of us and I think we all really enjoy it,” Principal Delores Smart said.

The kindergarten through eighth-grade students then settle down for class, and begin core subjects in math, science, social studies and a 120-minute reading block.

Geuka said he is also proud to instill in his students his “Sit yo’ Mama down!” motto.  The idea is that students would attain such a high level of achievement that one day they will be able to retire their mothers from work, and “Mama” will finally be able to sit down.

As in past years, Nguzo Saba has been challenged by the state’s standardized testing benchmarks. School officials say they are pleased that Nguzo Saba manages to maintain a D average.

Smart asks those people who scrutinize the school’s efforts to consider the fact that these students who transfer are succeeding at their own pace.  They have already been unfairly labeled as “failed’’ students by the traditional public school standards, and most are at least two years behind in math and reading when they enter the school.

Geuka added, “We take in the so-called “F” students in one school and still manage to be a D school.”

Paula Thompson, mother of three children who graduated from the school and one who is currently enrolled there, said she strongly believes that the teaching style and uniqueness of the charter school has brought her children much more educational success than regular public school.

She said her children who graduated from Nguzo Saba are now in high school, and are doing well there.

“Mr. Geuka is like a father to the children,’’ she said.  “And the staff pays close attention to each child’s individual needs.  They act as parent substitutes.”

In spite of the struggle to keep his school alive, Geuka said he refuses to turn his back on his community and the foundation he started.

Even Tracey Bougouneau, an instructor at Nguzo Saba, said she is thinking ahead to the possibilities.  Her middle school class is gearing up to write a letter to First Lady Michelle Obama regarding her direct involvement in education, and would like to encourage her to visit the school.

Yet the school’s financial issues have not been resolved.

Geuka said, he, the faculty and staff are discussing several options in case the eviction becomes a reality. They are thinking about how to make a smooth transition for the sake of the students.

Richard Keitel, landlord for the school’s facilities, said he agrees that the students should come first.

He said he will try to hold off from the eviction for as long as he can, adding that he hopes to work something out with Geuka for the sake of the children.

The building, which is assessed at $1,748,057, received a $1,276,082 reduction on its taxable value last year because it houses a charter school, according to property records.  The tax bill of $13,359 last year would have likely been much higher without the break.

“I have been carrying the school because I’m in a position to do so at the moment,’’ Keitel said.  “I don’t want to take action that will harm the students.”

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Editor’s Note: Khalifa Gopaul is a student of journalism at Palm Beach Community College and Florida Atlantic University in Boca Raton.

Photo by Elgin Jones/SFT Staff. Paula Thompson, second from left, with son Curtis, second from right, and, in the back row, daughter Yolanda, left, sons Corey, center, and Alexander, right. Curtis is currently enrolled at the Joseph Littles-Nguzo Saba Charter School. His brothers and sister graduated from Nguzo Saba and are now enrolled in high school.