Growing up, Alisha Flamer attended her local school, Daroff Elementary in West Philadelphia’s Haddington neighborhood.
When she had kids of her own, Flamer said enrolling them at Daroff, which had converted to a charter school in 2010, was still the obvious choice.
“To me and other parents, it was just a name switch,” she said. “I was happy for them to go and have the same experience I had.”
This year should have been her son’s last and her daughter’s first at the K-8 school, but just a few days before the first day of school, Flamer and other parents were told classes would be pushed back.
While problems had been brewing at Daroff for a while, she said, administrators repeatedly assured her that her children would have a normal school year.
So last Friday, Flamer and hundreds of parents were blindsided when they learned — in most cases from media reports — that their children’s school would close.
“Literally, it’s like the school has disappeared. Poof! It’s gone,” she said.
Problems at Daroff come to a head
While the school’s board of trustees and its charter operator did not inform parents of the possibility that the school would close, the warning signs were there.
Philadelphia’s Board of Education voted in April not to renew Daroff and its neighboring sister school Bluford’s charter agreements, citing low proficiency rates in math and English language arts and science, as well as the schools’ financial viability.
Both schools initially fought the decisions and promised families they would continue to operate — an outcome that became increasingly unlikely as they lost a series of legal appeals.
In July, the schools’ charter management operator, Universal Companies, run by music producer Kenny Gamble, announced that it would cease working with the schools after Bluford and Daroff’s joint board of trustees refused to extend its management agreement.
Even then, without a charter operator, school leaders promised parents the year would proceed as planned.
“They know the community well enough that they could have told the truth,” Flamer said.
Universal Companies, which still operates five public schools in Philadelphia, said in a written statement that it made “every attempt to assist the children and families with the transition prior to July 31, but was met with resistance. Universal’s priority has and remains the well-being of the students, families and staff.”
Daroff and Bluford administrators did not respond to WHYY’s repeated requests for comment.
Meanwhile, the district’s board of education, which is responsible for the city’s charter schools, took action to prevent children from returning to Daroff, citing staffing and safety concerns.
Two weeks before classes were set to begin, the district’s head of charter schools Peng Chao told the board Daroff had double-digit staff vacancies and inadequate fire alarms, among other issues.
The following week, the board called an emergency meeting to approve a settlement with Daroff and Bluford’s shared board of trustees. In it, the trustees agreed to surrender Daroff’s charter and close the school immediately. Bluford would remain open, but only for the 2022-23 school year.
“I want to extend an apology to families and to children that they had to find this out at the last minute,” said board member Cecelia Thompson immediately following the decision.
Flamer never heard Thompson’s apology and was unaware of the settlement until after it was approved. She wasn’t sure what to do; all she knew for certain was that her children needed a new school.
Daroff parents scramble to put their kids in school
The School District of Philadelphia had a plan for Daroff students when it decided to close the school, but not all parents were aware.
For example, administrators raised Bluford’s seat count to accommodate a limited number of students from Daroff, including seventh- and eighth-graders, even though it’s a K-6 school. Administrators also worked with the schools’ board to move teachers from Daroff to Bluford, largely solving the staffing problem.
Initially, Flamer did not know her son could attend Bluford, so she frantically started looking for a school both her children could attend. Most of the schools near her home are charter schools and all had waiting lists, she said.
She was relieved when she learned, after visiting the district’s temporary enrollment center at the library near her home, that her son could also attend Bluford.
“He’s excited now because he gets to stay with his friends,” she said.
She wasn’t as satisfied with the situation for her kindergartener with Bluford set to close at the end of the year.
“It’s trying to be ahead of the game and find a new school for her,” Flamer said. “My biggest, biggest issue is she’s on a waitlist for most of the schools. When they offer her a seat, it’s going to be in the middle of the school year, so I’ll have to yank her out of Bluford and put her in a new school.”
It was like playing a game of chess. If she waited until the end of the school year, when more students were changing schools, it could be harder to get her daughter into one of her top-choice schools.
Bluford parents make changes, too
While Bluford will be open through the end of the school year, some parents have rushed to pull their children out of the school.
Chloé Burton’s two sons were supposed to start third and sixth grade at Bluford this fall, but will now attend a cyber charter school instead.
“The parents who I know personally, most of us have decided to remove our children and put them elsewhere,” Burton said.
While the rationale among parents varies, two big concerns are potential overcrowding and the school’s long-term stability.
While the settlement gives the School District of Philadelphia “sole possession” of both schools, district officials have not said whether they plan to reopen and run the schools.
The district is in the middle of its Facilities Planning Process to assess the conditions and use of its large stock of buildings, which could result in the decision to close or consolidate some schools. The district’s team plans to present its findings and recommendations to the Board of Education in spring 2023.
Daroff and Bluford will be included in the process, district spokesperson Christina Clark said in an email Friday, adding that the community will be invited to give feedback both online and in-person, with school-based meetings likely starting in October.
If the district decides to keep both Daroff and Bluford closed, it would be a departure from its treatment of other former charters that were previously district-run schools.
In 2010, the district launched Renaissance Schools, a turnaround initiative in which it gave neighborhood schools with “long-term academic and climate challenges” to charter operators to transform.
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 two former charters — Olney High School and Stetson Middle School — after a state board ruled against the schools’ then operator ASPIRA in February.
District and board officials immediately made clear that neither school would close after the decision was announced. Olney and Stetson finished out the school year as charters and reopened this week as district schools without fanfare.
Kenderton Elementary, another former Renaissance school, returned to the district in 2016 after its operator surrendered it, citing high special education costs. The district immediately stepped in to run the school and continues to today.
Meanwhile, Daroff will be closed for at least this school year, which given precedent, is already an unusual development.
‘My hope is diminished’
For the parents of Daroff’s more than 500 students, the past week has been nerve wracking.
On Tuesday afternoon, parents could be seen schlepping from the public library to meet with district representatives, to Bluford and back. In between, there were frantic phone calls to pediatricians to request immunization records.
“The uniform does stay the same, thank God,” said one mother into her cell phone as she walked through Bluford’s courtyard quickly, her daughter trailing behind skipping.
Flamer, Burton, and Shleah Sanders, whose daughter was supposed to start kindergarten at Bluford, all took off at least a full day of work to navigate the labyrinth.
“I’m scattered all over the place right now,” Sanders said Tuesday. “My daughter is not enrolled anywhere now.”
Sanders was worried how big her daughter’s kindergarten class might be with students from Daroff joining and whether she’d have to change schools for first grade.
She had felt comfortable sending her daughter to Bluford, which is right by her house, and hadn’t had positive experiences with West Philly’s other public schools. But with transportation a concern, she also didn’t want to send her daughter farther out.
“I just feel like … my hope is diminished,” Sanders said. “I honestly don’t even want my daughter to go to a Philadelphia school district school.”
Burton said enrolling her boys in a cyber charter felt like the best option after all the interruptions to their education during the pandemic.
“It is costly, but it’s going to provide better for them than just throwing them into a district school with availability,” she said.
The cyber program, through Agora, is free, she said, but she’ll pay about $200 a child a week for them to learn onsite at a facility in West Philadelphia.
The role of a ‘community’ school
On a recent morning, Daroff’s two-story brick building sat locked; the only children in the vicinity were images painted on its walls.
Charles Gaston crossed Vine Street, away from a McDonald’s and toward the school.
The older man was visibly upset.
“They need to open the school back up,” he said angrily under his breath.
Gaston grew up in the neighborhood and attended Daroff in the 1970s and ‘80s. When Daroff was chartered he had hoped Universal Companies would usher in a period of stability.
“When Kenny Gamble took over we thought everything was gonna work out and it didn’t,” he said.
Without a functioning school in the immediate vicinity, Gaston said he worries former Daroff students will spend the year adrift, making them more susceptible to gun violence.
A block away, Alisha Flamer sat on her front porch thinking about the hole Daroff would leave in the Haddington neighborhood if the school remained closed.
She was glad facility safety concerns had come to light, but felt they were things that could and should have been fixed, rather than close the school — a community fixture — completely.
People had gone to the school to pick up fresh fruits and vegetables each week. There were clothing and supply drives for families and gift giveaways during the holidays.
“Now that the school is not there, it has taken away from the community,” she said. “The question is where can people now get those services?”
Update: Universal Companies, Bluford and Daroff’s former charter management company, did not response to requests for comment in time for this story to be published. Later, a spokesperson for the company said they had not received the requests. A statement was provided and added to this story on Sept. 7, 2022.
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