With her phone's camera pointed at the stage, Tiara Johnson hardly stopped smiling as she recorded her son's fifth-grade promotion ceremony this week at his school, the Imagine Academy of Cultural Arts.
He was among those chosen from the 51 fifth-graders to give a speech. Just before the program began, she told him not to be scared. He was standing with the rest of class, and he told her to hush.
"We learned all the stuff we needed to go into sixth grade," Jamaal Gross said later on the stage, a few floors up at the charter school on Washington Avenue. "I am excited about sixth grade because we will be big kids."
Then, Jamaal's fellow fifth-graders continued their end-of-the-year program. There was a dance performance, singing, and the often-recited rhyme at graduations.
It was a bright spot in what has been an extraordinarily tumultuous year for the pupils and staff of Imagine charter schools.
But just where Jamaal and other Imagine pupils will be when the new school year begins has been the big question for Johnson and other parents from the buildings that officially closed this week as Imagine schools.
After years of questionable finances and academic failure, the State Board of Education unanimously voted to close Imagine's six St. Louis schools in what has been called the largest charter shutdown in the country.
The closures are displacing nearly 3,800 pupils and about 280 staff.
Under a plan announced last week, nearly half of Imagine pupils could end up at two schools created by St. Louis Public Schools specifically for them. The first would be at the Imagine Academy of Environmental Science and Math, near Chouteau Avenue and Grand Boulevard, where St. Louis schools is taking applications for 800 elementary pupils and 400 middle-schoolers. The second is for 450 high schoolers from Imagine, and will be at Madison School on Seventh Street.
With that offer, school district officials say they have received about 2,000 applications from Imagine families to attend district schools.
Charter schools report 75 enrollments from Imagine pupils.
But firm commitments at any school may not be determined until later this summer, or even until school starts in August. Many have filled out enrollment forms for multiple schools, but have not made a decision. Principals at the Imagine schools have recorded just 145 requests for student records to be transferred to a different building, according to the transition coordinator hired by the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education.
Another enrollment fair for Imagine families is planned for 4 to 7 p.m. Tuesday at the Environmental Science and Math building, 1008 South Spring Avenue.
"We will be here, ready to assist them," Superintendent Kelvin Adams said.
The district also will conduct more interviews today of teachers who worked at Imagine schools.
At the Academy of Cultural Arts this week, with no working microphone at the fifth-grade promotion ceremony, a staff member had to shout so the crowd of about 150 could hear the pupils' names as they walked onto the stage to pick up their certificate. Another staff member handed out one program per family. There was no mention of the closure until the principal's ending remarks.
"This has been a trying year, and many of you have prayed with me and cried with me," Principal D'Anne Shelton told the families. "I'm going to miss my children."
She pointed out and congratulated one fifth-grader who she said scored advanced on state reading and math tests. She told the fifth-graders she looks at them and sees a room full of future doctors, lawyers, judges and architects.
Other Imagine schools also continued their usual end-of-the-year award programs and celebrations, despite the looming closure. But some parents said this week that they didn't send their children on the last few days.
"They're not really doing anything anyhow, and the school's closing," parent Zenetta Rhome said.
The Imagine schools are operated by a for-profit company, Imagine Schools Inc., based in Virginia. Charter schools are public schools that are tuition-free and operate independently of the city school system.
Greg Richmond, president and CEO of the National Association of Charter School Authorizers, said the success of the charter school movement depends on closing bad schools.
"You have to vet up front and be willing to close failing schools that continue to stay open," he said.
He said the Imagine closings and transition to new school could provide valuable lessons.
"Maybe there's a silver lining in this cloud," Richmond said. "The leadership displayed in St. Louis will be an example for other cities around the country — you can step in and do the right thing."
Johnson attended the first of three enrollment fairs organized for the Imagine families, hoping to find one school for Jamaal and his siblings. She said this week she thinks Jamaal will go to Gateway Math and Science, a city magnet school. But the attached elementary school told her it's unlikely they'll have spaces for her two other children.
"It's so frustrating," she said as she walked away from the Gateway table back in April. "I don't want to put my kids in just any school. If it closes, then I'm back at square one."