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Opinion: Connecting the Dots of Exceptional Education in Camden

Mark M. Murphy | April 1, 2013

The state's takeover of Camden's schools may be necessary, but it's not sufficient to ensure quality education.

Recently, I led almost 40 business, government, and nonprofit leaders into Camden to see for themselves what is going on in urban education in New Jersey. I make it a point when I take our Lead New Jersey Fellows to Camden to not push them in the direction of early and easy conclusions on what they will see and hear.

Camden is different from anyplace most of us have ever been: The poorest census tracks in the East make up its core neighborhoods; murders occur at18 times the rate of New York City; the city’s police force -- considered to be hopelessly log-jammed by union regulations -- is being disbanded, to be reconstituted by Camden County cops; and the municipal budget relies on the state to supply 88 percent of its operating revenue.

And then there’s the plight of the kids caught in Camden with nowhere else to go. Suffice it to say that 23 of the 26 Camden public schools are on the State’s lowest-performing list, financed almost entirely from court-mandated funds made possible by the income taxes paid by all of us.

Seen in this light, Camden is not just different. It's not just an overlooked island isolated from the rest of us by its desperate poverty, as many of us secretly believe.

Rather, Camden is best viewed as tethered financially to each of us, something like that unfortunate relative whose familial claim on us we can’t deny, but whose life we can’t seem to turn around by writing a check, either.

That’s as much as I give them, our delegation of visitors, as we climb down from the bus to meet with the public and private educators, family service professionals, union reps, clergy, and academic researchers who daily shoulder the tremendous task of educating Camden’s youth, hoping to help then scale that daunting hill out of poverty and deprivation.

Our Lead New Jersey Fellows I’m sure are primed to expect to be assaulted by the desperate circumstances they read about or hear rumored.

And in two days, we go behind the lurid statistics to meet the real people who are dedicating their lives to helping children and families in Camden transcend their circumstances.

We meet the seventeen-year-old in spotless school uniform who is waiting on his acceptance to Stanford University. The principal of the magnet high school who came back to the streets where he grew up to pull city kids up after him. The 36-year veteran public school principal who’s Five Cs for success includes “Compassion,” and who keeps a washing machine and clothes closet near her office so kids whose school uniforms are dirty and tattered can discreetly change into new uniforms while she launders and mends theirs.

And we also have a chance to spend time with the veteran local pastor who beams at the children in his tutoring program and declares there is nowhere he’d rather live and serve. The Salvation Army Major who is spearheading a multimillion dollar state-of-the-art family center on the site of a former state prison. The urban development specialist whose agency is patiently investing to bring new businesses, new entertainment options, new living spaces, and new vitality to the old neighborhood.

I intentionally present these stories of extraordinary educators to our Fellows to break through the unexamined dismissal that nothing good can possibly be going on in Camden education. As former Assistant Education Commissioner Gordon MacInnes constantly reminds us, there are excellent educators and their practices sprinkled throughout our most desperate urban school districts. The problem is that they are important but isolated: We still haven’t been able to connect and replicate them to create patterns of systemic change.

So what do we do? We concentrate on how these districts are managed and governed. Fifteen or 20 years ago, faced with the frustrations now so acute in Camden -- state funding financing failing schools and fraudulent administrators -- the state disbanded local school boards, fired local superintendents, and took over districts in Jersey City, Paterson, and Newark.

And we’re still there, with all the attendant local outrage, and no real exit strategy for a return to local rule. The positive results in those three districts are most largely measured by administrative reforms in budgeting, purchasing, and personnel -- about what you would expect from any administrative intervention in a business run poorly from the top.

Late last week Gov. Chris Christie announced at Woodrow Wilson High School that Camden would be the next district to come under direct control of his Department of Education. That’s on top of the financial monitoring the state has exercised there for a dozen years.

I can’t help but think this may be necessary. A generation of half-measured plans in Camden for administrative remediation, training, and oversight -- each effort producing lengthy management recommendations and timetables -- have produced little accountability for how or where our money is spent. But is this blunt takeover decision the tool sufficient to ensure that real education takes place for every child in every school -- not just where a hero rises above conditions?

Assessing practice under state rule in three other urban districts for over a decade, the answer is surely, "Not Yet."

Mark M. Murphy is president of Lead New Jersey and a senior policy fellow at the Edward J. Bloustein School of Planning and Public Policy at Rutgers University. He can be reached at mark@leadnj.org .

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