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Camden Sees Hope in Promise of New Schools Built by Nonprofits

Christie signs Urban Hope Act in struggling city to spotlight his reform for failing schools

Twenty-three of Camden's 27 public schools are already targeted for state turnaround efforts. Four others have been closed in the last two years under the guidance of the state's fiscal monitor, and the Christie administration is currently weighing the extent it will further expand its intervention in the district.

And now, Camden looks like it will be ground zero for a new law first proposed by Gov. Chris Christie that could build up to four privately-run "renaissance schools" in the city, also under state oversight.

For the president of the Camden school board, herself an appointee of the state under a previous intervention, it's a wild ride of uncertainty for this long embattled city.

"Change is going to take place, whether we like it or not," said Susan Dunbar-Bey, appointed by former Gov. Jon Corzine.

Exactly what that will look like and when it will happen are among the many questions, but there were no shortage of promises yesterday as Christie returned to Camden to sign the Urban Hope Act.

First proposed by the governor on a sweltering summer day, the slightly watered-down version enacted by the Democrat-controlled Legislature this week would allow private nonprofit companies to build and manage up to four new schools in three pilot districts: Camden, Trenton and Newark.

"It was six months ago I stood here detailing an initiative that would give immediate relief to students trapped in some of the worst and most chronically failing schools in the state," Christie said.

"We stood together saying we would get it done," he said. "Here we are six months later saying we did get it done."

Christie signed the law in a crowded auditorium of the Lanning Square School, declaring it one of several alternatives he hopes for Camden schoolchildren, on top of the expanded charter schools and a proposed tax-credit voucher program.

When asked whether the state was poised to take over Camden schools outright, like it has in Newark, Jersey City and Paterson, the governor hedged and said the state's takeover history was hardly remarkable.

"I have said many times, I have no interest or desire to take over the schools in Camden," he said. "I won't relinquish my authority to do so, but I do not believe that is in the position at this time, and I have no plans or are we in discussion about taking over the schools in Camden."

Even so, the state's controls now are significant. The district is already under a state fiscal monitor, Michael Azzara, now three years on the job and guiding improvements in budgeting and controls. The district recently completed one of its most positive financial audits in years, he said.

Still, it's not like student performance has much improved, dogged by some of the worst poverty in the country, let alone the state.

Under a new statewide accountability system being proposed to the federal government to replace No Child Left Behind, the Christie administration would target the very lowest performing schools in the state for aggressive intervention, including the possibility of replacing staff, leadership and even the curriculum.

Of the 70 so-called Priority Schools preliminarily identified, 23 are in Camden.

Still, that's just a start, as the state also continues to review its own monitoring report of the district in which it could have basis for full state intervention. That report is due soon, and Christie said it could be a determining factor.

If four new schools are built under the Urban Hope Act, that would put even more pressure on the district already struggling to hold onto students. The local board must sign off on any new project, and Dunbar-Bey said they have only begun to talk about it.

"Obviously, if they take four schools, what would that mean for us in terms of staffing and students and budgets?" said Dunbar-Bey, the board president. "There is a lot of uncertainty."

To give one a sense of the depth of the problems in the status quo, the school that hosted the signing yesterday was actually the third home to Lanning Square School in the last decade. The previous one was torn down for a new school that has yet to be built, although it's said to be a prime candidate for the new law. Another temporary home was closed after last year's earthquake.

Sheila Roberts, a community leader in downtown Lanning Square neighborhood, said all the bouncing around takes its toll on children. Being relocated to a school four blocks away and built in 1871 – and looking very much its age -- doesn't help either.

"We have no school in our neighborhood," she said. "And this school is older than Moses. Our children need a school."

Roberts said she is aware of the controversies over private management versus public, but she's willing to swallow that for something new. "These children have not had something new in a very long time," she said.

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