MAXWELL:  Uhuru school would benefit children

11/24/1999 – Printed in the EDITORIAL section of the St Petersburg Times Newspaper


Like many other St. Petersburg residents, I am monitoring the controversy surrounding the Uhuru Movement’s charter school application. Unlike many others, however, I believe the organization should have a charter school. Omali Yeshitela and his followers should be permitted to serve children whom the public school system has virtually failed.

I spoke with several parents whose children attend the group’s after-school program. They are excited about the prospect of an Uhuru school. Following is an edited excerpt of my interview with Yeshitela on Monday:

“The Marcus Garvey Academy will focus on low levels of black educational attainment and the disproportionate number of suspensions and expulsions of African children. In Pinellas County, 50 percent of black children fail in all subjects, and 50 percent of black highschoolers are at risk of dropping out. Of those who graduate, 47 percent receive certificates of attendance. Additionally, over half of all the children suspended or expelled are black children.

“We must assume that the school system shares at least some of the responsibility for these failures. Moreover, much of the school system of the U.S. has been under federal court control because of its historical hostility toward educating black children. And while we recognize there are dedicated teachers who make extraordinary sacrifices to forward their profession, it is possible that the system and many of its teachers and administrators view the presence of black children as a liability.

“The Garvey Academy, on the other hand, will recognize these children and their blackness as an asset. We believe that the education of our children must include cultural awareness and an understanding of our history. We believe that implanting a positive self-image has direct bearing on achievement.

“The curriculum will reflect the culture and standards of our community. The culture and self-identity of black students would be interwoven into each subject. This should not be seen to mean that the school will be some sinister ideological training school for future subversives as has been suggested by some of our detractors.

“The curriculum will be academic and will include English/language arts (creative writing, selected books and short stories, poetry, public speaking, publishing); mathematics; social sciences (African history, American government and history, world history, economics); natural science (biology, Earth and space science, chemistry, physics); two electives per quarter (dance, art, music, martial arts).

“The small number of our initial student body (a total of 45, with 15 each from elementary, middle and high school) belies the assumption that somehow granting our charter would negatively impact the current negotiations between the School Board and the NAACP Legal Defense Fund. Moreover, to deny us based on such a claim makes a mockery of the charter-school concept and constructs a prejudicial barrier to the detriment of the very community supposedly the beneficiaries of the desegregation process.

“Our school will have its own building at 1245 18th Ave. S, currently the site of the Uhuru Gym, which will move into a newly acquired building to accommodate the school.

“The issue of diversity should not become a weapon to prevent the black community from solving its many problems, especially those in education. Throughout the black community each day, many groups and individuals tutor black children who are having problems in school. The Uhuru Movement is one such group. For more than a year, we have tutored more than 20 children every Tuesday and Thursday from 4:30 to 6:30 p.m., and on Saturdays at the African Market Festival at Campbell Park from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. During the summer, the academy’s summer project taught nearly 30 children math, reading and technology, which focused on computer training.

“And while many of the children we work with are stigmatized as slow learners and emotionally handicapped, they perform at or above grade level. The absence of diversity has not been an issue during this process. Nor should it have been. Nor should it be now.

“While the start-up budget for the academy will come from the School Board, we will generate our own money. Currently, a fundraiser is scheduled for Jan. 27 at the Bayboro campus of the University of South Florida.”

I have read the Uhuru Movement’s application, and I am satisfied that if the organization keeps its promises, it will benefit the black community, St. Petersburg and the entire county.