A Case Study In African Centered Education

Joseph Littles-NGUZO SABA Charter School (JL-NSCS) is the only African-centered public school in the State of Florida. The school received its charter in December, 1998 and began operating on January 20, 1999 in temporary space donated by the Urban League of Palm Beach County. Its intent from the outset was to target students who were considered to be severely at risk of failure in regular or traditional public schools. These tended to be children of families whose housing needs were provided by the public either in public housing complexes, or through “Section 8” Certificates and Vouchers provided by the U.S. Department of Housing & Urban Development (HUD). JL-NSCS initially served students in grades K-2, and subsequently added a grade each year until it now serves Kindergarten through eight, comprising elementary and middle school. Our school has now produced three (3) graduating classes, and by most accounts, our graduates are distinguishing themselves in the high schools to which they have matriculated.

The student and family demographic we serve is almost exclusively of African descent, though we have at times had Hispanic students enrolled. Haitian families in particular have found JL-NSCS to be a “safe-haven” for their children in view of past practices where they had been subjected to harassment by African-American students in other district schools. Our school has a “zero-tolerance” policy toward this practice, and as a result, Haitian-American students typically comprise fifty-percent (50%) or more of our enrollment.

Ethnic or nationality notwithstanding, the majority of students who have attended our school have been from families of low and very low income, and most often from single female headed households, which portends social and economic instability. To have a chance to succeed in life, our students often have to overcome crime, broken families, hunger, and poor parenting – and these are just for starters! They usually come to us unprepared to enter Kindergarten, or at least one grade below level if they are in first grade or beyond. To offset these handicaps our students need all the “extras” we can give them; extra LOVE; extra MOTIVATION; extra TUTORING; extra African-centered REASONS to have basic pride in themselves.

Many of our students were considered the “scourge” of the schools they attended before coming to JL-NSCS. Their presence and activities in the traditional classroom made it almost a certainty that little learning would take place because teachers had to spend an inordinate amount of time and effort maintaining discipline as long as they were present. Their misbehavior and lack of academic focus resulted in failure on standardized tests, the basis on which teachers, schools, and districts are measured. This meant that teachers, administrators, and even some district officials’ jobs were in jeopardy based on results of such testing. As a result, this gave personnel in traditional schools added incentive to encourage parents of problem children to consider transferring them to charter schools, because parents resisted having their children assigned to the district’s own “alternative” schools which generally have terrible reputations.

In our school’s brochure the question is asked: “What type teachers should seek employment with JL-NSCS?” The answer: “Those who seek an opportunity to meaningfully and measurably impact students’ development; those who have a “missionary zeal” and enthusiasm for the teaching cause; those who want to pioneer a visionary, creative, and life-changing educational demonstration in Palm Beach County.”

We also ask the question “What type of administrators will be drawn to and employed at JL-NSCS?” And the answer: “Those with their heads in the clouds and their feet on the ground; Pragmatic Altruists; those who want to be part of a team-approach to holistic education, who know that ‘…it takes a whole village to raise (educate) a child.’”

Most instructional, administrative, and support staff who have been employed at our school since 1999 have possessed the foregoing traits. Those who did not were not long on our payroll. Embracing the purpose and vision of JL-NSCS is a prerequisite for employment there. Without them, the experience would not work for either the staff person or the student. While our teachers are paid on a relative par with their regular school counterparts, we cannot come near to matching the fringe benefit package made available to district staff. Moreover, the inequitable funding for charter schools makes it impossible for us to offer staff any job security because the money may just not be there! As a result, only the strongly committed survive at the Joseph Littles-NGUZO SABA Charter School; and that applies to staff, students, families, and members of our Board of Directors. Most have supported the school and its students beyond the call of duty.

One of the allegations made by traditional educators against charter school operators is that we are “…in it to make a profit.” The disparity in funding for charter schools makes such a charge ridiculous on its face! If charter school operators are making a “profit” while receiving less than 50% of the per-student amount allocated to school districts, how much greater profit are the districts making with their voluminous budgets which are often larger than those of municipalities that share their jurisdictions? It is not unusual for charter school operators to have to occasionally loan money to the their schools for normal operating needs. Most often such loans are short-term, to meet a payroll until the next month’s allocation is received. Occasionally however, loans can be longer term.

During the nearly ten years our school has been in operation, my wife and I have at different times loaned a total in excess of $300,000.00 to our school, usually in increments between $5,000.00 and $15,000.00. Such loans were usually re-paid within thirty (30) days. However, several years ago our cash-flow shortfall was such that we fell four (4) months behind in lease payments to our landlord, who took us to court to force an eviction. My wife “bailed us out” by lending the school $66,000.00 to pay the landlord and avoid the eviction. The school district did nothing to help us avert that potential disaster, although it retains tax monies due our students for capital expenditures. The school was not able to repay that large a sum at one time, so we eventually were forced to convert it into a “demand” loan on which the school pays her 7% simple interest. At about the same time I was obliged to loan the school $120,000.00 to cover its operating shortfall for the balance of that school year. That loan too was converted into a demand loan on which the school pays me the same 7% simple interest. In order to make these large personal loans to a PUBLIC charter school, we had to take out a second mortgage on our home. One of our teachers, who this year became our Principal, loaned the school $20,000.00 of her personal money, which too had to be converted into a demand loan at 7% simple interest.

Personal loans to charter schools by persons dedicated to the purpose and mission of such schools is not unusual among charter school operators. Only the large size of the three loans referenced here is exceptional. There is no instance that I am aware of where persons affiliated with traditional public schools put such substantial amounts of their personal assets at risk to support the operation of a public school. Not even top-level public school administrators who often receive six-figure salaries ever contribute out-of-pocket to public education. Yet public school teachers are often lauded for purchasing classroom supplies such as paper and pencils for their students. Such purchases seldom reach or exceed $100.00 in an entire school year.


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