Damien Hibbert, a senior at the Science and Discovery High School in Delaware County's Chester Upland School District, should be in the final lap right now, deciding on what college to attend, getting ready for the senior prom, renting his cap and gown.

Instead, his mother, Amanda Rios, said Wednesday, he and his family are trying to figure out what to do if his school, along with the rest of the district, falls victim to an unprecedented budget crisis.

"He's a good kid. They're all good kids," Rios said. "They deserve better. We're helpless. We're depending on other people to make the right decisions."

Her angst is driven by the knowledge that the Chester Upland district is operating on fumes.

The district is $20 million in debt. In recent years, it lost almost half of its students - and the funding to that goes with them - to charters, and has suffered heavily from cuts in state funding. District officials say those two factors have left the school system insolvent. They say they are out of options, except a possible federal lawsuit. The Corbett administration says the district's own mismanagement is at fault and, as result, there will be no state bailout.

The schools are open only because teachers have agreed to keep working without pay.

Should that change, the parents of 3,700 students may face the unthinkable: a district that can no longer educate their children.

Rios has begun preparing for the worst. Her first option: having her son move in with relatives in a neighboring district.

"He won't get to spend much time with his family, but education is the most important thing," she said.

Other parents say they have no clue what to do if the district shuts its doors.

"I'm stunned," said Danielle Rodriguez, a school crossing guard and the mother of students at Columbus and Smedley Elementary Schools. "What are we going to do? We can't have them running in the streets; there's already a lot of violence here. It's crazy; it shouldn't come to this."

Pausing to talk as she ate lunch at the Upland Diner, Anna Jackson, who has a seventh grade son at Smedley, made a prediction.

"It will be a mess," she said. "Parents are going to lose their jobs because they can't leave their children home alone."

Her plans?

"I don't know," she said. "I don't even know what my choices are."

At Chester Eastside Ministries, an urban ministry, Gina Freeman, there for a GED class, voiced the anger of many residents who have seen a casino and a soccer stadium come to Chester in recent years, but have not seen their or their children's lives get any better. She has daughters in eighth and 11th grades.

Harrah's Casino pays a "host fee" to the city, which is also financially distressed, but nothing to the schools. The soccer stadium will eventually go on the tax rolls but has an exemption for now.

"If they can bring all these things to Chester, why can't they put money in the schools?" Freeman said.

Closing schools, she said, "is a recipe for Chester's destruction. The most important thing is my kids' education."

Outside Chester High School as classes let out, Naja Harrison, 17, a senior, said: "I'm really concerned. We want to graduate. We don't want our school to close. We worked hard to get this far."

Her options, she said, were home schooling or an online school, "but that's not where I want to be."

Classmate Earl Norwood, also a senior, said he was angry.

"It's only five months" to graduation, he said. "They have to find the money. If they don't, I'll go to another school, but my friends are here. I want to finish the year."

Some parents are turning to activism.

Danyel Jennings, the mother of a sophomore at the district's Science and Discovery High and a Chester High graduate herself, launched an online petition this week asking for help from the state.

She also plans to attend a candlelight vigil before Thursday night's school board meeting.

"I'm angry," Jennings said. "It's frustrating to see children who, if they were given a better education, could do anything. But instead of worrying about their studies, they are worried about whether the schools will close and their teacher will still be there."

If the schools close, she said, "first, I'll cry. Then I would have to home-school, or move."

Ray Weinmann, a third-grade teacher at Columbus Elementary and a 15-year teacher in the district, said he's still hoping for a rescue.

If none comes, he will keep on teaching without a paycheck as long as there is a chance things will turn around, he said.

"If you don't accentuate the positive in Chester Upland," Weinmann said, "you don't belong here."

It's already been a rough year at the 600-student school, he said, with larger classes and "a skeleton crew" after hundreds of staff were laid off last summer.

He grieves for Chester, Weinmann said. Over the last few decades, "the shipbuilding and many other jobs left. If the teachers leave, what will you have? The kids have to stay."

He added, "It's sad. They already have so many obstacles in their lives. For me, it's never been about the paycheck. It's about improving things for the children. It's bewildering how something like this could happen."

Contact staff writer Dan Hardy at 215-854-2612 or dhardy@phillynews.com, or on Twitter @DanInq.