Tearful goodbyes mark charter's last day

Myla Douglas (left), Grae Samuels, and Hillary Cao at a goodbye party at the Institute for Excellence Charter School in Winslow Township. The school will be cleared out by the end of the week.
Myla Douglas (left), Grae Samuels, and Hillary Cao at a goodbye party at the Institute for Excellence Charter School in Winslow Township. The school will be cleared out by the end of the week. (LUKE RAFFERTY / Staff Photographer)
Posted: June 27, 2013

Some students cried hysterically, leaving the school for the last time, while others cheered their summer vacation. Parents hugged the teachers who lined the Winslow Township charter school's hallways to say final goodbyes to their students.

The Institute for Excellence Charter School was having its last day of school - ever. Citing low test scores and administrative instability, the state Department of Education chose not to renew the school's charter.

"I've been in education 15 years, but this is the first time I don't want dismissal to come," said Diane Osbourne, the school's acting director.

A letter sent Feb. 28 notified the four-year-old school of the state's decision. Parents and staff mounted a months-long campaign to save the school, but the letters, fund-raising parties, and a visit from State Sen. Fred H. Madden Jr. (D., Camden-Gloucester) made no difference. Classes ended Friday, and the school is to be cleared out by the end of this week.

The school has about 460 students in kindergarten through fifth grade, Osbourne said. About 400 students will attend schools in the Winslow Township School District next year, in part because of a lack of options.

The enrollment period for other schools had ended by the time the state announced its decision to close Excellence. Private schools that parents sought to enroll their children in were also close to capacity.

Leaving the charter school will be hard, parents and students said. Some parents stuck around to give presents to teachers, eyes red as they said goodbye.

"This school, I love. . . . I've loved this place since they started here," said Diane Biello, 46. "I'm thrilled that my kids go here. They have gained so much, they have grown so much."

Biello works as a teacher's assistant at Winslow's School Six. Her 9-year-old twins, Dante and Nicole, will be attending that school next year.

Biello said she is focusing on the good things, like a strong chorus program at School Six. Or the fact that other displaced charter students will also be attending School Six in the fall, though many of the twins' friends will be at School Five.

Like Rhett and Payton Walther, another set of 9-year-old twins.

"It was really bad," said Rhett, sobbing into his mother's embrace, of his last day at the charter school. "And I hate it. 'Cause I won't get to see my teacher or my friends."

Rhett was one of a small pack of students latched onto his teacher, Rory Boettcher Jr., at the end of the day. As he patted their heads, Boettcher looked up and unsuccessfully blinked back tears of his own.

"We all were really attached to each other. So they're crying, I'm crying," Boettcher said after his 20 students left. "It sounds like a lousy parallel, but it's almost like putting them up for adoption. You are trusting the next teacher to carry on with all the work that you've done. And these are kids that you've poured your heart and your soul and your energy into."

Boettcher taught second grade for two years before "looping up" this school year and teaching the third-grade class he had taught in second grade the year before.

"This especially, because I looped, is just emptying. Right now I feel more exhausted than I have in any day being here," said Boettcher, who also leads the faculty union. "When you loop up with them, you're attached to them."

"I'm not a father yet, but these kids' pictures are in my office, these kids' pictures are on my refrigerator."

Sitting in the school's office as parents came to pick up children, Osbourne resorted to gallows humor as, she said, she was trying her best to keep from crying.

"You spill any of that," she said to a teacher carrying a tadpole-filled "ecosystem" made out of a two-liter bottle, "you'll be looking for a new job."

The teachers, of course, have already lost their jobs. Fewer than a quarter of the school's 70 faculty and staff members had found new employment by last week, Osbourne said.

One teacher in that position, special education teacher Lisa Jackson, said she was not sure she would stay a teacher.

"I don't feel as good about teaching as I did before," said Jackson, a 17-year veteran educator who started in the Philadelphia School District.

Teaching remains her calling, she said, but things were tougher this year. And now the 46-year-old has lost her job.

Osbourne has had to console her staff even as she herself has not found a new job.

So when one teacher said she'd be throwing a party over the summer, Osbourne laughed.

"This works out! So many people have invited me over," Osbourne said, "that as I'm on unemployment, I'll at least have food!"

A handful of teachers stood in the hallway at day's end, greeting students on their way to lunch and saying final farewells as they left.

Smiling at the students, the teachers reminded them that summer vacation had arrived and not to cry.

Boettcher chose not to join them, staying in his classroom to say more private goodbyes to his students.

"You know you'll always be in my heart. And if you ever need me, I will always be there," Boettcher told them.

"All 20 families have my personal e-mail, my personal cellphone. And if it's [that] they're 16 and having boy problems or girl problems, I'll be there. If they're 18 and they want me to come to their high school graduation, I'll be there. They're that special to me," he said. "They're a part of you."

Contact Jonathan Lai at 856-779-3220, jlai@phillynews.com, or on Twitter @elaijuh.

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