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Palo Alto Online

Publication Date: Wednesday, January 23, 2002

Afrocentric school struggling to survive Afrocentric school struggling to survive (January 23, 2002)

East Palo Alto charter program looking for cheaper space

by Jennifer Deitz Berry

A small East Palo Alto school with a long tradition of educating young African-Americans is struggling to stay afloat. The School of Wisdom and Knowledge is staring down a $140,000 debt and is preparing to make cuts in order to survive the remainder of the school year.

"We're going to have to do some drastic downsizing," said the school's principal, Nobantu Ankoanda.

The school, serving 53 students in kindergarten through eighth grade, already operates on a shoestring budget. It is one of five charter schools under the auspices of the Ravenswood City School District, but the only one not housed on district property. By law, schools on district land can occupy the buildings rent free. But with no vacant space left in the district, the School of Wisdom and Knowledge is renting out rooms on private property.

"Those of us still on private property, we take a big chunk out of our budget to pay rent, which effects the program," Ankoanda said.

Right now, classes are taught in a converted house on Runnymede Avenue and in rooms at the church next door. In order to pay rent between now and June the school will abandon one of the rooms at the church and convert its office space into a classroom. Also, Ankoanda said, "we're going to have to lay off a teacher, I'll have to go back to the classroom, and there will be no secretary. Basically, there will be no one in the office except the answering machine."

The cutbacks won't be sufficient to help the school pay off its existing debt, so Ankoanda is working with district officials to come up with a long-term plan. Ankoanda said Superintendent Charlie Mae Knight has volunteered to help personally with efforts to raise money for the school. (As of press time, Knight was not available for comment.)

The School of Wisdom and Knowledge became a charter school in 1999 but its history dates back more than 20 years. Concerned that mainstream education wasn't preparing African-American students to move on to college and into leadership positions, she began teaching classes out of her garage.

In 1980, Ankoanda founded a private school called Shule Mandela Academy. The school adopted an Afro-centric curriculum, an approach that is more common on the East Coast but a rarity in California public schools.

While traditional public school history courses tended to focus on the experience of Europeans and white Americans, teachers found that putting more emphasis on the experience of African Americans helped students explore their own cultural roots and connect more personally with the material being taught

Enrollment at Shule Mandela declined as rent and housing prices in East Palo Alto increased and many African-American families moved away. Others, unable to afford the tuition -- about $350 to $450 per month -- sent their students to newly-opened charter schools that were also offering an alternative to the typical public school. In 1999, Ankoanda closed Shule Mandela only to reopen it as a charter school called the School of Wisdom and Knowledge.

Being a charter allowed the school to receive state funds, but it also meant it could no longer charge tuition. As a charter, The School of Wisdom and Knowledge has remained true to its original vision. Most students are still African American, though a few are also Tongan, and the curriculum is still aimed at helping students understand history and politics through the experiences of cultural minorities.

Teachers also believe that given the harsh conditions in which many East Palo Alto students live, a school should offer more than academics. There is a strong emphasis on family involvement and community-building, with parents expected to spend at least eight hours per month helping out at the school.

Malachi Muhammed, who was one of Ankoanda's former students, returned to the school as a teacher. Having grown up in circumstances similar to many of his students -- his father and brother both spent time in jail -- Muhammed said he sees part of his responsibility as being a positive male role model.

The school is also mindful of creating a calming, safe environment for its students. Behind the school is a rock garden, a fish pond and flower beds, and students work regularly in a garden growing vegetables. They are also encouraged to take African drumming classes or lessons in ballet and African dance.

Now the school is preparing for the likelihood it will need to relocate. Ankoanda said the Ravenswood board members are considering putting up portable units on district property, which the school may be able to use temporarily. In the meantime, Ankoanda is seeking grants and donations and looking for opportunities to collaborate with community groups in order to share facilities.

E-mail Jennifer Berry at [email protected]


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