Students say emotional goodbyes as school closes

Acclaim Academy charter school closes doors Friday

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – The few students who were on campus Friday at Acclaim Academy said emotional goodbyes to teachers and staff as the charter school prepared to close down.

"It's just depressing because they're all family," student Breanna Baumgartner said. "I just want to stay here. That's all I wanted. I want everyone back as if nothing changed."

Baumgartner and her sister are two of hundreds of students at the military-themed charter school who learned this week that the Westside school would be closing Friday.

Their families were left scrambling to find new schools for their students to enroll in Monday for the remaining few weeks of the school year.

Duval County Public Schools superintendent Dr. Nikolai Vitti told News4Jax that school officials contacted the district Monday night, saying they didn't have enough money to continue to pay the faculty and that the school would be closing Friday.

"The unfortunate thing is that students and parents believed in the school, left traditional public schools for something they felt was more innovative and different," Vitti said. "The school failed in fulfilling that requirement."

Vitti said the monthly reports Acclaim gave the school district looked adequate.

"We did raise concerns in April that there seemed to be some problems with finances and they were able to respond to those questions," Vitti said. "But it appeared as if they were shifting dollars from one side to the other in order to make monthly bills."

Vitti said the school was counting on a grant to supplement the funds paid by students, but the grant didn't come through and that's when the financial situation bottomed out for the school.

Parents and students came to Acclaim Academy on Friday not for classes but to get help from the Duval County School District in what to do next.

The district sent a letter to parents explaining that staff would be available from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. Friday to answer questions about school options and requirements for placement. Parents who couldn't make it to Acclaim were told to enroll their student in their neighborhood school or come to the School Choice Office at 1701 Prudential Drive on Monday to finalize their selection for their student's new school.

Vitti said of about 250 students at the school, 200 or so had been placed in new schools as of Friday morning.

READ: Letter to parents from Duval School District

Assistant Principal Dwayne Thomas said the upheaval at the school started last week with a call from the man who owns the school and two others in the state under the umbrella of Acclaim Academy.

Thomas said the owner told administrators the school was having financial challenges.

"He told us we needed to start eliminating positions, so we eliminated four positions last week, and we thought that would take care of the situation," Thomas said.

But it didn't.

Thomas said Monday the owner called again to say the school would be closing by the end of the week.

"It's a sad day any time a school has to be closed, especially when it has to be closed earlier than anticipated," Thomas said. "We thought that we would make it through the end of the year."

News4Jax learned that of the other two Acclaim Academy schools in Florida, an Orlando location closed on Wednesday and a Kissimmee location is being taken over by the school district.

Vitti said the district taking over Acclaim in Jacksonville wasn't an option because he didn't want taxpayers to pay for a collapsed charter school, many of the faculty members at Acclaim were not reappointed from the Duval County School system and he felt the district could properly educate students and help them transition.

"When we look at the faculty at Acclaim, almost the vast majority of them were not reappointed from our own schools," Vitti said. "So these are teachers that were let go by principals that had bad evaluations and Acclaim has hired them after they left our school district."

Vitti said he was not comfortable adding those faculty members who "were deemed unsatisfactory" to the Duval County school system.

Some parents told News4Jax they didn't want to send their child to the schools provided as alternatives by Duval County. The district said those are the schools that have room.

A Duval County Public Schools spokeswoman said charter schools have their own curriculum, and if a student chooses to enroll in a Duval County school, then the student will be assessed and the goal would be to have the student graduate on time, if they fulfill that school's curriculum.

She also said all of the students who attend Acclaim Academy have the right to be home-schooled, attend a merchant school, a public school or private school.

News4Jax attempted to contact the owner of Acclaim Academy, but the company phone was disconnected and the website was down.