Will Pinellas accept an Uhuru charter school?

Teaching the Afrocentric ABC's

click to enlarge EQUAL TIME: "If I hear one more 'diversity,' I'm going to kick someone," says Dwight "Chimurenga" Waller, president of St. Pete's Uhuru Movement. - Alex Pickett
Alex Pickett
EQUAL TIME: "If I hear one more 'diversity,' I'm going to kick someone," says Dwight "Chimurenga" Waller, president of St. Pete's Uhuru Movement.

Last month, inside their newly renovated home on St. Petersburg's Southside, the International People's Democratic Uhuru Movement held a spirited meeting to discuss their newest project for Midtown. But as the meeting progressed, it became clear that this gathering was unlike other Uhuru events.

For one, the vast majority of the 50 or so people in attendance were not Uhuru members; they were average St. Pete residents like Lisa Robinson, a working mom with a daughter in a west St. Pete private school. Robinson, invited by a friend, had never attended an Uhuru meeting before.

Also unusual was the Uhurus' presentation. The speakers toned down their socialist rants, and they didn't show videos on colonialist oppression. Instead, the small group of self-proclaimed revolutionaries proposed a venture embraced by thousands of American families — white, black, poor, rich or otherwise.

The Uhurus want a charter school.

Their proposal: the Marcus Garvey Academy, a K-8 school centered on studying African heritage and closing the achievement gap between Pinellas County's white and black students.

"You don't have to agree with everything the Uhuru stands for, but the point is, our children are our future," Dwight "Chimurenga" Waller, president of St. Pete's Uhuru Movement, told those present. "We are confident that this program and this school is something that can change the face of education in Pinellas County."

In light of recent rule changes in the Pinellas County School District, they just might get that chance.

Charter schools popped up in Florida 12 years ago, and their numbers have rapidly increased. At 358 facilities, Florida now has the third largest number of charter schools in the nation. The types of charter schools are numerous: arts-oriented, Greek or Spanish immersion, and those that focus on Montessori or Socratic teaching techniques.

In 2000, the Uhurus submitted a proposal to the Pinellas County School Board for an African studies-based school serving 40 students in the majority African-American neighborhoods of Midtown. The school board denied the application, because it would have violated a court-ordered desegregation ruling that mandated a racial quota in Pinellas County schools.

"It didn't appear to be very educationally sound," adds Susan Latvala, a former school board member and current Pinellas County commissioner. "But right off the bat we couldn't even consider it, because it would be an all-black school."

That federal mandate expired this year. For the first time in 30 years, parents have the choice to send their children to the school closest to their home, no matter the racial makeup. Waller says this presents an opportunity to resubmit the Uhuru charter school application.

"The sense that we're getting is it looks pretty good," he says.

Though the Uhurus won't complete the application for another few months (the deadline for the 2009-2010 school year is Aug. 1), Waller outlines the basic framework for the school: 120 students; an Afrocentric curriculum focusing on the achievements of Africans throughout history; Spanish and Swahili courses; and varied teaching styles using music and dance.

But the main emphasis, explains Waller, is giving black students the opportunity to succeed in a "non-hostile learning environment."

A series of studies released over the last eight years show a disturbing pattern in the Pinellas County School District: Only one in four black men graduate from Pinellas County schools; only 30 percent of black children score at the same proficiency levels as white children; and black students face suspensions much more often than white students.

"We didn't create the problem," Waller says, "but it's up to us to fix it."

The Marcus Garvey Academy hopes to mimic the success of many Afrocentric schools across the U.S. In Chicago, the Betty Shabazz International School is consistently one of the city's best-performing schools.

"If they have a curriculum where they could do Afrocentric and integrate it with the Sunshine State Curriculum Standards, there's no problem," says Richard Moreno, chair of the Florida Schools Excellence Commission, a body charged with authorizing some of the state's charter schools.

Will Pinellas County accept a school run by the Uhurus, an often combative and controversial political group?

"It'll polarize, certainly," says Dr. Cathy Wooley-Brown, former director of the now-defunct Florida Charter School Center at University of South Florida. "When you have that kind of theme, people are going to say, 'Is that going to be exclusive?' When [the Athenian Academy in Dunedin] started, there were a lot of people who said, 'Are only Greek people going to that school?' That can create problems."

Waller concedes approval is an uphill battle.

"There's going to be opposition," he says. "Politics always plays a part in these decisions."

But some former and current school board members agree that conditions may have changed.

"[The school board] would possibly look at it differently now," says Lee Benjamin, a former board member who presided over the Uhurus' first application.

Current school board chair Nancy Bostock says the board mainly focuses on a charter school's educational and financial merits; the Uhurus' ideology, she says, "wouldn't be a deciding factor."

And if the Uhurus can solve discipline problems and stem the dropout rate of young black men, says County Commissioner Latvala, "more power to them."

But the Uhurus' main obstacle will likely be charges of exclusivity. Steve Swartzel, the Pinellas County administrator who oversees charter school applications, cannot comment on an upcoming application. But his assistant, Dot Clark, says that despite the court-ordered desegregation, the Florida Department of Education "still expects diversity."

Waller, in true Uhuru fashion, is not mincing words. All races seeking an Afrocentric education will be welcome at the Marcus Garvey Academy, he says, but diversity is not a goal.

"If I hear one more 'diversity' I'm going to kick someone," he bellows. "Diversity is being used to hurt our children. ... Keep your diversity and we'll take equality every time."

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