Bluford Charter School will reopen this fall, but who will operate it remains an open question.
The School District of Philadelphia is preparing to welcome the West Philadelphia K-8 school back into the fold and operate it as a neighborhood school. But it’s also reviewing a new application to keep the school running as a charter, albeit under a different name.
“Confusing is right,” said Peng Chao, the district’s chief of charter schools.
“We thought in August that finally, we could say at the end of this school year Bluford will be smoothly transitioning back to a district neighborhood school and we still hope that is the case,” he said. “That is certainly what is in the agreement that all sides agreed to and we just hope that everyone involved in this situation can say the same thing to families so there is little to no confusion.”
The agreement returns control of the struggling school to the district on June 30, 2023.
But now Bluford’s board appears to be trying to circumvent the agreement. President Deshawnda Williams in November submitted an application to form a new charter — that would include Bluford and now-closed sister school Darroff Charter School — under the name Perseverance Leadership Academy.
Williams has not returned multiple requests for comment.
Chao’s office will review the application along with the three other charter applications the district received in November. Chao’s team will issue a report on each and schedule public hearings, he said.
Ultimately, the district’s school board will make a decision on the applications before the spring.
The district and Bluford’s board will meet with families, staff, and district representatives Saturday to discuss the school’s transition back to district control, Chao said.
“We feel like we owe families at Bluford and Daroff absolute clarity as to what’s going on,” he said.
An Instagram post from Bluford advertising the meeting makes no mention of the pending charter application.
According to Chao, the district does not plan to reopen Daroff for the upcoming school year since its former students are now enrolled at new schools.
“There’s been a lot of disruption already and if we can at all minimize that level of disruption moving forward, I think that’s a good idea,” he said.
Bluford enrolls roughly 550 students, 175 of whom used to attend Daroff.
What went wrong at Bluford and Daroff
Problems had been brewing for Daroff and Bluford long before the schools’ combined board agreed to surrender its charters in August.
Philadelphia’s board of education voted not to renew either school’s charter in April 2020, citing low proficiency rates in math, English language arts, and science, as well as the schools’ financial viability.
The schools’ board fought the decision and promised families they would continue to operate, an outcome that became increasingly unlikely after they lost a series of legal appeals.
In July, the schools’ board decided to break from its longtime charter management company, Universal Companies, which only made matters worse.
Chao said his office took the abrupt split as a sign that something was not right.
“It’s very rare for the board of a charter school to decide frustratingly close to a new school year not to renew its agreement and start a school year without kind of a full slate of services for students,” he said.
Two weeks before classes were set to begin, Chao told the district’s board that Daroff had double-digit staff vacancies, inadequate fire alarms, and other safety concerns. Bluford was understaffed as well.
In response, the board called an emergency meeting to approve a settlement it had reached with the charter schools’ board. Daroff and Bluford administrators agreed to surrender Daroff’s charter immediately and Bluford’s at the end of the coming school year.
Chao said his office has been very involved in Bluford’s operations this school year, including roughly weekly check-ins with school leadership “to make sure we have an understanding of basic things like enrollment and staffing.”
Despite the pending charter application, Chao said, the district’s transition team is working closely with the school to ensure a smooth return to district control.
Two more Renaissance schools return to district control
Bluford and Daroff, once underperforming district-run schools, became charters in 2010, through a turnaround initiative known as Renaissance Schools.
The district has since backed away from the program and has reclaimed several former Renaissance schools for poor performance.
This year, the district welcomed back Olney High School and Stetson Middle School and now runs both schools directly. Kenderton Elementary, another former Renaissance school that returned to the district in 2016, continues to operate as a district-run school.
When the district’s board announced that both Daroff and Bluford would return to district control, it did not commit to reopening either school.
The decision to reopen Bluford as a district school has been comforting to some parents, while others are mourning the loss of Daroff potentially forever.