Troubled StudentFirst Academy charter school closes its doors

Erinn Rochelle was among the stubborn ones.

When the financially troubled StudentFirst Academy announced it would close Friday, some parents immediately withdrew their kids.

Not Rochelle. She felt an abrupt transfer would unnecessarily upset her sons, ages 7 and 9, not to mention the disruption a new school schedule would have on the family.

“I was not going to be forced out before they closed the door on that final day,” said Rochelle, who was able to enroll her boys in Marie G. Davis Military & Global Leadership Academy starting April 21. It is a CMS magnet school south of uptown.

“I was speechless when I heard the school closing from another parent, and I just couldn’t tell my boys. Eventually, the school announced it to the students, and both of them were upset. The youngest is bewildered and doesn’t understand what’s going on.”

Her sons, Christopher and Omar, were among a handful of students who stuck it out until the very end at StudentFirst Academy, a west Charlotte charter school that stunned parents last week by announcing it will close just weeks before the end of the school year.

The school, which opened last fall with 338 K-8 students, has been under investigation by state officials for allegations of financial mismanagement and academic irregularities. However, officials with the N.C. Office of Charter Schools said Thursday that it was the decision of the StudentFirst board of directors to close before the end of the school year.

The student body began shrinking as soon as the closure was announced, with some teachers reporting attendance had dropped by 50 percent in some classes. On Friday morning, some StudentFirst buses dropped off as few as three children.

Parent Inga Mayfield said the school had called her with a warning that all students needed to be off campus by 4 p.m. on the final day. When she showed up to get her daughter, 10-year-old Trinity, teachers were already loading up their cars with personal belongings.

“Trinity wanted to be here today so she and all her friends could hug and exchange numbers,” said Mayfield, who bought pizza for Trinity’s entire class at lunch.

“She was worried that she’ll never see her friends again, and I wanted them to have something to look forward to on the last day. I think the school really failed the children by not staying open to the end of the year.”

Trinity, who dreams of being a screenwriter, said she made four best friends at StudentFirst and was resigned to the fact that not all of them would be classmates at her new CMS neighborhood school, Beverly Woods Elementary. “We were going to have a bake sale today to try and save the school, but it didn’t work out,” Trinity said.

She would have needed $600,000 in cookie sales, which is how much debt the school racked up in recent months.

Jackie Davis is another parent who kept her children enrolled until the last day. She has boys in the second and eighth grades.

Plan B for parents

A lot of parents from the school are considering home-schooling their kids, she said Friday.

“My youngest son is afraid of the unknown and upset over having to leave behind teachers he has come to like. But the oldest, well, he thought the closing of the school meant he could stay home the rest of the school year,” Davis said.

“I told him: ‘I don’t know where, but you are going to school somewhere because I can’t be around you 24 hours a day.’ ”

Davis said she has been able to get her youngest son into the Male Leadership Academy of Charlotte, a private Christian school. The older boy will likely go to Marie G. Davis, but that’s not a done deal yet.

Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools predicted many of the school’s parents would wait until after the end of spring break next week to enroll their students in CMS.

Parents such as Davis and Rochelle said they had long suspected something was wrong at StudentFirst but were confident it would get better with time. Rochelle said she remains angry and believes the leaders who caused the financial troubles should be barred from working in education again.

“If I was face to face with them, I’d tell them they don’t deserve to be around children,” Rochelle said. “For them to just throw up their hands and give up their charter, not caring about the impact on parents and students, tells me just how selfish they are. And teaching is not a career for the selfish.”

Some teachers said they, too, began to notice problems long ago, including second-grade teacher Richard Ramos, 31, a native of the Philippines.

Ramos visited an immigration attorney on Thursday, claiming school leaders misled him into believing StudentFirst Academy was arranging to have his work visa extended. However, he said the school’s leaders not only failed to get the extension but filed tax paperwork listing him a contract worker, rather than a full-time employee.

On Thursday, he learned his only recourse was to leave the country immediately, with his wife, a 3-year-old son and a baby only weeks old.

“We’re broke and on our own now, so I’m talking with a church to see if we can get money for plane tickets home to the Philippines,” he said. “I had other options for jobs, and if I’d chosen to go to another school, this wouldn’t have happened.”