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‘I feel lost’: Families at two Philly charters scramble to find new schools after closure plans were announced

“What am I supposed to do? It’s a few days before school starts,” grandparent Gwendolyn Mills said. Her grandchildren were supposed to attend Daroff Charter School, which closed abruptly.

Grandmother Gwendolyn Mills waits to meet with school officials at Haverford Library. Her grandchildren went to Universal Daroff Charter School, but the school closed a few days before classes were set to begin.
Grandmother Gwendolyn Mills waits to meet with school officials at Haverford Library. Her grandchildren went to Universal Daroff Charter School, but the school closed a few days before classes were set to begin.Read moreALEJANDRO A. ALVAREZ / Staff Photographer

Gwendolyn Mills’ grandchildren were supposed to start eighth and third grades Monday at Daroff Charter School. When she found out Friday their school was shutting down, she felt adrift.

“What am I supposed to do? It’s a few days before school starts,” said Mills, who has had students enrolled at the charter formerly managed by Universal Companies Inc. for eight years. Daroff and Bluford Charter School, run by a single board of trustees, struck deals Friday with the Philadelphia school board to close — Daroff immediately, and Bluford at the end of the 2022-23 school year.

Hundreds of families such as Mills’ — the schools’ combined enrollment was about 1,000 — now find themselves in similar spots: scrambling for other school placements, at Bluford or elsewhere, with very little notice.

School board officials said the schools’ demise resulted from repeated instances of adults failing children.

Both Bluford and Daroff are former district schools that were given over to Universal in 2010 to dramatically improve student performance. The hoped-for gains were not realized, and in 2020, the schools’ charters were not renewed. After two years of fighting the decision, Universal ultimately ended its contract with Bluford and Daroff in July.

Afterward, the combined Bluford-Daroff board said it would operate the schools independently but could not find a management company or hire enough teachers to staff both schools. District officials also said they had serious health and safety concerns about the buildings, so the board of trustees negotiated a settlement with the district’s charter office that was finalized Friday.

Bluford students can remain at the school this academic year, and although some Daroff students can enroll at Bluford, a lottery may be needed if more children apply for spots than the building can hold. Priority will be given to students with special-education plans, those who are DHS-involved, and children experiencing homelessness.

Xarion Smith and Zoey Barnett, Mills’ grandchildren, will transfer to Harrington Elementary, a district school at 53rd and Baltimore. Daroff is around the corner from Mills’ house, but she’s not comfortable with their walking to Harrington, and the school isn’t far enough away for Xarion and Zoey to qualify for free transportation.

“That’s $25 extra a week that I have to pay,” said Mills. “It’s their mistake, but I have to pay.”

Zoey is unfazed by the upheaval, Mills said, but Xarion is upset by such a big change going into his eighth-grade year.

“He doesn’t want to go to a new school, meet new friends,” Mills said.

On Friday, Tia Green took her daughter Legand’Ari, 12, to the Haverford Avenue Library, where the district set up shop for the weekend to register families and facilitate transitions, to try to get answers about the rising seventh grader’s coming year. Legand’Ari was supposed to attend Daroff, so when Green heard about the trouble at the school, she tried to find her a place at another charter school.

Officials told her there was room at Mastery Charter-Shoemaker, and after Green put in an application, she got an email back that Legand’Ari was waitlisted. District officials from the offices of placement, transportation, and student support services were at the library to help families find answers, but the Greens left with none.

After Mastery Shoemaker was a bust, Green said she wanted to enroll her daughter at Rhoads, a public school, but was told she could not go there because it was not her neighborhood public school.

“I just want to know, if there’s no room for her at Shoemaker, and she can’t go to Rhoads, where can I send her?” said Green. “We don’t know where she’s going to school, we don’t know when she’ll start school. I have to buy new uniforms, and if she’s going to go somewhere far, I have to teach her how to get the bus.”

Legand’Ari is frantically trying to find out where friends are enrolling, but no one seems to know.

“I’m pretty sad about Daroff,” Legand’Ari said. “It was the best school ever.”

Dawn Drake cried when she heard about the turmoil at the schools. Her son is a second grader at Bluford, and Drake worries about what the changes will mean for a child to whom routine is very important.

“Do I look for another school? I just feel stuck. I don’t know what to do. If I send him to another school, do they have autistic support class? Do they have certified special-ed teachers?” said Drake. “This whole thing was done wrong; they didn’t let us know until very late.”

Bluford and Daroff both had double-digit teacher vacancies; combining staffs, all positions are filled except three facilities jobs, charter school officials said. It’s not clear whether all teachers are certified for the positions they’re slated to fill.

Drake’s son, Azaiah, keeps asking her when he’s going to start school, and she’s not sure what to tell him. Bluford was supposed to open Monday, but it has pushed its start date back to Sept. 6. Drake has family help and knows she’ll figure out a plan for her son, but she worries about others.

“What about people that live in the neighborhood who don’t have cars or a way of transportation?” said Drake. “It’s so hard.”

Samantha Ryder, mother of a Bluford fourth grader, finds the whole situation upsetting.

“It’s very disheartening that the situation wasn’t handled in a more sensitive manner,” Ryder said. “It’s actually quite reckless, if you ask me.”

Her son likes Bluford, but Ryder is exploring the idea of sending him elsewhere if she can find a school with a better curriculum and transportation provided.

“I’m very good with change, but kids need structure and guidance, and if this is any insight to what the school year’s going to bring, I’m definitely open to other options.”

Keisha Barham was happy with Bluford, where her son was supposed to be a first grader. But she’s frustrated with the turbulence, and questioned whether she wants to keep her son at the school.

“I feel lost,” Barham said. “Every time you turn around, it’s different information. I can’t stand the stress of not knowing where my child is going to be. I just don’t know what to expect this school year.”

Though some parents were dealing with uncertainty, Kabriah Gordon had a smooth transition. Gordon, whose twins Zion and Zachariah were supposed to enter kindergarten at Bluford, left the Haverford Library with the boys registered at Cassidy Elementary, a district school.

Gordon can handle transportation herself, and she was thrilled the school had room for both boys.

“I was worried, but everyone is doing their best,” said Gordon. “It was a pretty smooth process.”

With so many families in play, even private schools raised their hands to help. Patrick Boyden, an official with the Independence Mission Schools, a network of city Catholic schools, stopped by the library with fliers. Three IMS schools are within 15 minutes of Daroff and Bluford and have room for students.

Special transfer scholarships will be available to Bluford and Daroff families, Boyden said, and IMS families do not have to be Catholic to attend.

“We’d love to be a landing place for families in a tough spot,” Boyden said. “We know what a bind people are in.”