Special to South Florida Times
It’s been a tumultuous ride for the only African-centered public school in the state of Florida.
For years, the Joseph Littles — Nguzo Saba Charter School in Riviera Beach has been dogged by an FCAT letter grade of “D.” The school has also been mired in debt. And Palm Beach County Schools Superintendent Art Johnson launched an effort to close the institution at the end of this past academic year.
But something is happening at the school these days. To school officials, parents, students and supporters, recent developments have been nothing short of miraculous.
Since Nguzo Saba officials were notified in February that the superintendent wanted to revoke the school’s charter, it has been fighting to prove that it deserves to remain open. A major victory came on July 28, when the School Board of Palm Beach County voted unanimously to keep the school open.
And, last Friday, Aug. 6, when FCAT letter grades were released, Nguzo Saba earned its first “C” grade in the school’s history. Up until then the school had received only a “D” grade year after year.
In addition, on May 27, when 3rd grade FCAT scores were released, Nguzo Saba surprised everyone by posting the largest gains of any of the 106 elementary schools in Palm Beach County.
Another plus for the school is that enrollment is expected to be up considerably for the upcoming academic year. In fact, so many students may seek enrollment that the school may need additional room.
Has Nguzo Saba turned a corner?
“If I were to allow myself to be cautiously optimistic, the answer to that question would be yes,” said Amefika Geuka, the school’s founder. But he’s careful not to get too far ahead of himself with the accolades, citing the school’s problems with the School District of Palm Beach County.
“Based on our history with the School District, I’m hesitant to count any eggs before they hatch,” he said.
“Ask me in another year if we’ve turned a corner and I’ll be in a better position to answer.”
But Geuka is clearly delighted with the school’s FCAT “C” grade.
“We’re very pleased that we broke out of the ‘D’ category and got a ‘C’,” he said.
Principal Delores Smart said the school was within a few points of earning a “B” grade.
“Of course I’m elated about our ‘C’ grade, but we were so close to a ‘B’,” she said.
Smart credited the improvement to drastic changes she implemented, such as extending the school year, holding Saturday classes, extending reading time to two hours each morning, and working with groups as small as one or two students.
Geuka says he is amazed that staff and students were able to perform at such a level, while under the stress of trying to convince the superintendent and school board members that classes should remain open.
“I can’t say enough about the fact that they were able to produce these results,” he said. “Everybody could have thrown in the towel and just given up. But they refused to do that.”
Superintendent Johnson launched his bid to close the school in February, citing its school’s failure to meet academic standards, financial distress, and governance issues as the reasons.
However, at various hearings, former students who are now college honors students testified that the school changed their lives.
School board members seemed impressed by the improvement in the 3rd grade FCAT test scores and said they were not willing to shut the doors just yet.
The school has also implemented a plan to get out of debt. Geuka said officials are on the right track.
“With additional revenues, which we now have, with lower overhead costs, which we now have, and if we had the collaboration and cooperation and the support of the School District, instead of their adversity, just imagine what wonders we might be able to produce,” he said.
Geuka has repeatedly insisted the superintendent unfairly targeted the school.
The South Florida Times contacted the School District’s media relations department for a comment on Nguzo Saba’s FCAT grade and for the superintendent’s reaction. The paper was informed that the request was passed along to School District spokesperson Nat Harrington. At press time, Harrington had not responded.
Daphne Taylor may be reached at Daphnetaylor_49@Hotmail.com.