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Amefika Geuka

Afro-centric charter school to use $125,000 grant to fight criticism on performance

By Karla D. Shores
Education Writer

February 23, 2004

Amefika Geuka wants to tell another story.

Not the one about his West Palm Beach school's failing math and reading scores or a scathing report about his teachers.

Geuka said he wants to tell the story about how Afro-centric Joseph Littles-Nguzo Saba Charter School has survived five years as an academic haven for "castoffs, outcasts, and project children."

"I wish I could say these students are here because they like the school," said Geuka, co-founder and headmaster of the school. "They come because they're not appreciated anywhere else."

Students at Nguzo Saba are gearing up to tell the story of the school using a $125,000 federal grant designed to allow charter schools to share the their highlights with the public and other educators.

Charter schools often use the money to publish a book or pay for workshops. But Geuka said he wants his students to tell the story in their own ways -- through song, rap, dance, plays and stepping.

"Children of African descent often learn affectively," Geuka said. "You go to a black church, and they're not just sitting there. They're tapping their feet, talking back to the preacher."

Nguzo Saba, which means the seven principles in the eastern African language Kiswahili, is one of several charter schools statewide to receive the money this year, along with Renaissance Learning Center and Delray Boynton Academy in Palm Beach and The City of Pembroke Pines Charter High School and The City of Coral Springs Charter School in Broward County.

Nguzo Saba struggles daily to teach 150 children who live in subsidized housing and return to single-mother homes.

A day at Nguzo starts out with a ceremony focused on Umoja, or unity, one of the seven principles of Kwanzaa.

Students at the kindergarten through seventh-grade school pour water in a libation ceremony for their African ancestors, perform stretching exercises, and pledge allegiance to the American and Pan African flags. They recite Jesse Jackson's I am Somebody and sing the Black National Anthem, Lift Every Voice and Sing.

Teachers are parent substitutes at the unique school that spreads over the second floor of a suite tucked in a nondescript business district. Students address their teachers, all women, with "Mama."

Geuka is part grandfather, part headmaster, and in most cases, students' only male role model. Students are taught to call each other "brother" and "sister," and they address Geuka with "Baba," which means father in Kiswahili.

Geuka, former vice chairman of the board of commissioners of the West Palm Beach Housing Authority, said he and 11 other community leaders established Nguzo Saba for students who live in government housing because the leaders felt poor black children weren't being served well by traditional public schools in Palm Beach County.

Geuka, who has a background in public administration, said he isn't ruffled by a recent Palm Beach School District evaluation, which says students are failing math and can't read at grade level.

Last week May Gamble, Palm Beach Charter Schools director, cited a lack of certified teachers, unclean bathroom facilities and poor standardized test scores.

Nguzo Saba has not yet received a school A-Plus grade, but individual scores show 19 percent of the school's third-graders passed the reading portion of the FCAT and 8 percent of third-graders passed the math portion last year.

He would rather focus on teaching black boys to "sit their mother down," -- give their mothers a nice life so they don't have to work -- when they get older. He said the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test is important, but he would rather teach black girls to respect themselves than get bogged down in what bureaucrats think his children should learn.

"People want to take shots from a distance, and that irks me," said Geuka, who comes off to some as an aloof, stalwart man. "We're dealing with a struggling population."

The Joseph Littles-Nguzo Saba dance troupe hopes to tell the story as its members twirl and dip on the documentary, which Geuka plans to have completed in September. The girls said the school has drawn them closer to their heritage.

"This school has taught me to believe in what black people have done in this world," said Kaneesha Williams, 11, of West Palm Beach. "It's like an African school."

Karla Shores can be reached at kshores@sun-sentinel.com or 954-356-4552.

Copyright © 2004, South Florida Sun-Sentinel

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