Defiant parents and children at the Kwame Nkrumah International School, which opened this month as a D.C. charter school without gaining permission to do so from the D.C. Board of Education, said yesterday that they will fight efforts to close the facility.
With the future of the school uncertain, students signed petitions between classes and parents vowed to keep their children at the college-preparatory school for grades kindergarten through 12 despite the turmoil.
"We aren't looking for new schools because we already have a school, this one," said Talaya Thompson, who has five children at Kwame Nkrumah. "This meets everything my children need."
As school was letting out yesterday, school board member Dwight E. Singleton (Ward 4) met parents inside and told them the school would have to close today, prompting an angry reaction.
Students managed to go about the business of learning amid television cameras in the hallways and other distractions. But some students said the uncertainty made it difficult to concentrate. More than a dozen students in grades 7 through 12 said they would be angry to see Kwame Nkrumah close, and several seniors said this was their last chance for a degree.
"A lot of us will drop out if this school closes," said Lakecia Tolson, 17. "I'm going to be honest. I am one of them."
Some parents--who learned of the school's lack of a charter yesterday--said they believed the school board was opposed because some of Kwame Nkrumah's top officials once had connections to the now-defunct Marcus Garvey Public Charter School, which operated for two years before being closed last spring by the school board after the discovery of financial improprieties.
Kwame Nkrumah recently hired Mary Anigbo, the controversial principal of Marcus Garvey, to do limited teacher training even though the school's curriculum is different from that of the Afrocentric Marcus Garvey. School board members said that did not play any role in their decision.
The trouble at Kwame Nkrumah, which says it has an enrollment of about 270 children from ages 5 to 18, illustrates a worst-case scenario in the new world of charter schools in the District. Charters are schools that operate with public funds--free of charge to students--but outside the normal bureaucracy, meaning the D.C. superintendent has nothing to do with setting rules and curriculum.
The District has the fastest-growing charter movement of any city in the country, with nearly 30 schools in operation. D.C. law allows two different panels to each independently approve 10 new charters a year. The appointed D.C Public Charter School Board has been praised for its thoroughness in vetting and monitoring schools; the school board has been accused of following a more lax process.
Schools go through a process in which they receive provisional approval and then resolve outstanding issues before earning a charter.
Kwame Nkrumah received a provisional charter from the school board in December 1998, with the condition that it find a suitable facility. The school obtained a lease to move into the third floor of an old school building owned by the school system in Northwest Washington, a designated hub for new charter schools.
Last spring, the school board began talks with Kwame Nkrumah officials to address some concerns. In early September, the school board's charter committee voted 2 to 1 to grant a charter, and some panel members told Kwame Nkrumah officials to prepare to open, believing the approval was imminent.
But on Sept. 13, the school board, in a closed committee session, voted against a charter.
Kwame Nkrumah officials said nobody from the school board told them about that vote. They opened on Sept. 17, Principal Phil Watson and other officials acknowledged, believing the issue would be resolved soon.
Then, yesterday, the school board sent security guards to school to pass out fliers to children saying the school was not certified. Some children became so rattled that they burst into tears and ran home without coats and backpacks, parents said.
Tonya Vidal Kinlow, head of the school board's charter committee, said the turmoil is the fault of the school, which was warned repeatedly not to open. She conceded, however, that she was not sure the school board informed Kwame Nkrumah about the Sept. 13 vote. Kinlow said she did not think there was any chance that the panel would now approve a charter.
A spokesman for Superintendent Arlene Ackerman said it was up to the school board to decide whether Kwame Nkrumah could remain in the charter hub. Kinlow said she did not know whose responsibility it was to make that decision.
CAPTION: Jeanne Paige hugs daughter Turquoise Paige, 11, a sixth-grader, after an emergency parents meeting at the Kwame Nkrumah International School, which lacks the required charter and has been ordered closed.