Joseph Littles Nguzo Saba Charter School shutting its doors after 16 years
“You [PBC School District] have a mandate from the state to educate Black children; you’re given tons of money to do it. Who really has failed Black children – the PBC School District or Nguzo Saba School?” — Amefika D. Geuka
By K. Chandler
After 16 years in operation, the Joseph Littles Nguzo Saba Charter School will be closing its doors for good when its contract with the Palm Beach County School District ends on June 30th.
The decision by the PBC School Board to close the Nguzo Saba Charter School followed a 4-2 vote on April 2. Earlier, the District had offered the beleaguered charter school the option of rectifying compliance issues, relocating to another site; paying back rent in the amount of $200,000 by June 30, 2015 and avoiding a second F grade this summer as conditions that must be met in order to obtain a renewal of its charter license.
In a recent interview, Board Chairman Amefika D. Geuka, who co-founded the Joseph Littles Nguzo Saba Charter School, expounded on the District’s untenable conditions that he said made it impossible for him to comply.
Unbowed and determined to stay the course, Geuka stated that he objected to the District’s ‘disingenuous claims’ that it had no choice but to take the shut-down action in lieu of the compliance issues and failing grades.
He noted that the law stipulates – with respect to a school that gets two F’s in a row, that the District can, but is not obligated to shut them down.
“They took the position they were obligated,” stated Geuka. “At that point we hadn’t gotten two F’s. The FCAT results won’t be out until July. They took the position that the statutes man-date that they notify us 90-days in advance to not renew the charter, which is like putting the cart before the horse.”
According to Geuka, Assistant Superintendent, Dr. Joe Lee did attempt to broker a peaceful agreement on the FCAT results, suggesting that the District hold back on its non-renewal position until mid-July when the FCAT grades would be in.
Negotiations break down
Out of that came a 1 year ex-tension “to allow us to continue beyond June 30th in order to wait for the FCAT scores. If there was another F grade all deals were off. A D grade or better would warrant negotiating terms and conditions under which a renewal would take place,” Geuka pointed out.
Negotiations soon broke down after conditions were added into the agreement document at the last minute, including acknowledgement of “being guilty as charged,” with respect to the compliance issues and owing an outstanding $200,000 debt to a former land-lord, which had in fact been written off as a $200K charitable donation back in 2009, Geuka stated.
“Had the board members and I signed that agreement document, which we were given 24-hour notice on, we would have been personally liable. After June 30th Nguzo Saba Charter School would technically be out of existence, so no assets; however we’d have acknowledged liability for the $200K in back rent, which would have resulted in an added windfall for the landlord.”
In her response to the District Charter School Office’s MID YEAR & RENEWAL RE-VIEW (upon which the compliance issues were based), Dr. Helen R. Byrd, Ed.D, Principal of Nguzo Saba Charter School said she was confused about what “constitutes compliance in targeted areas.”
“. . . We have a detailed list of corrections that we did address and responded to with information being provided that should have satisfied the areas of concern, but there has been no further additional targeted sup-port.”
Dr. Byrd further noted that in many cases, the negative ratings were derived from “non-specific” findings that are not supported with authentic evidence.
“The Review process has been utilized as a weapon against the charter school to look for or create any conditions that could be focused on as negatives as it relates to the school,” she stated.
Also expressing concern over the closing of Nguzo Saba, school board member Dr. Debra Robinson said she initially planned to withhold her support for Nguzo Saba based on the “procedural problems.”
“But then I saw the District’s Percentage Yearly Growth (PYG data), which reflected gains of 20 percent more than District elementary school students in reading, on average,” stated Robinson, adding, “The procedural problems could have been dealt with.”
Joining Robinson in the 4-2 dissenting vote, school board member Marcia Andrews lamented the fact that the only school offering African-centered education in the entire state would soon be shutting its doors. “This will be a loss to the community, and I wonder what will happen to the children…”
Underscoring the two board members’ concerns, Geuka questioned why the Palm Beach County School District would “ignore the counsel of the only two Black board members who stressed the importance of this school to our community, and in lieu of questions as to whether conclusions drawn by the District were necessarily reflected by the data.”
If anyone’s expecting Amefika Geuka to simply fold up his tent and walk away, they’ve got another guess coming, however.
The privatization of education
“We might have lost the battle, but we’re going to win the war,” he predicted confidently, referring to the seeming inexorable march toward privatizing education in this country.
“The whole charter school movement emanated out of vouchers which were ‘couched’ in the terminology of ‘free choice,’ meaning parents have the right to choose whatever school, for their children’s education. The public money allocated was essentially the child’s money and came to be used through the instrument of a voucher.
Since 1999 the School District of Palm Beach County has had just under $40 billion to educate children in Palm Beach County. When you divide 16 years into $40 billion that total comes out to be $2.5 billion per year. Then you divide the number of children enrolled over the 16 year period (average number of students per year = 149,000). Dividing the $2.5 billion by 149,000 you come up with $16,750 per student or that student’s pro rata share of local education money. In other words, a full voucher would be worth approximately $16,750 per child.
As we speak, Geuka noted, lobbyists, parents and other interested parties were angling to get measures through the 2014 Florida Legislature that will enable parents to leverage their child’s pro rata share of education money so that they might obtain the best possible education for their child. Within 2-5 years, Geuka said he expected to see a full-voucher system in place. And these will more than likely be corporate-backed charter schools.
Getting in on the ground level
Rather than be alarmed, Geuka urged the Black Com-munity to get onboard.
“This is what’s coming, folks. Instead of sitting back and allowing the train to leave the station without us, let’s get some of these charters. Let’s get back in the business of educating Black children,” he stated, “with adequate funding this time.”
Geuka’s booming assessment of the coming explosion in corporate-backed charter schools is not unfounded. Not only are charter schools as a whole fast becoming the new ‘darlings of Wall Street,’ weal-thy investors from China, Russia, Australia and Nigeria are getting in on the act, investing millions into local charter schools in the U.S., funding libraries, science and math labs, media centers and football fields.
Currently, there are said to be some 6,000 charter schools operating in the U.S. with 2.3 million children enrolled. All across the country states are rushing to expand their voucher programs and charter school operations.
In Florida alone there are 575 charter schools with new ones constantly coming down the pike, thanks to Florida House legislation that would eliminate some of the barriers faced by out-of-state corporate charter operators along with incentives to pave the way for out-of-state charter companies to expand their base of operations into Florida.
Potential downsides to corporate-backed charter schools
If there is a potential down-side or danger associated with these corporate-backed charters, it is the likely impact that they will have on children of color, many feel.
A number of critics question whether charter schools, particularly corporate-backed charter schools, will increase racial and economic polarization over time, leading to a two-tiered education system for the ‘haves and have-nots.’ Other critics view the accelerated push for corporate-backed charter schools as ‘education policy on the fly,’ unproven and minus data to show how charter schools have outperformed traditional public schools, which was one of the main reasons charters came into existence in the first place.
Critics also decry the top-down, management approach of corporate-backed charters fearing its relentless focus on profits will override its concern for children. Many fear minority children will ultimately wind up becoming a footnote in the charters relentless drive to expand market share.
“It’s also important to note,” cautioned Geuka, “private prison operators like the GEO Group want to run jails, but also want to be assured of full occupancy. How do you achieve this? There must be a pipeline. For the last 10 years at least, they have been using the failures of FCAT reading scores of third graders as an indicator of how many prisons and jails they’re going to need 10 years down the road.