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Philadelphia-Based Charter Network Tries Again to Cross River into Camden

State takeover of troubled city’s public district bolsters Mastery school’s prospects

Student at Mastery Smedley Elementary School in Philadelphia.
Credit: Hechinger/Benjamin Herold
Student at Mastery Smedley Elementary School in Philadelphia.

Three years ago, the Mastery Charter Schools network out of Philadelphia gained its first foothold in New Jersey, earning state approval to open a school in Camden.

But bogged down in its quest to find the right location – and stymied by a public school district’s reluctance to give up an empty school building -- Mastery was not able to open its Camden charter school.

Three years later, under a very different school-governance picture for the city, the nonprofit Mastery network will soon be back again seeking to open a school in Camden.

Mastery said yesterday that it plans to reapply next week, this time proposing to open by September 2014. The application will be part of the state’s expedited review process geared toward established charter organizations.

“Mastery Charter Schools looks forward to serving the Camden community next year,” Sheila Ballen, Mastery’s communications director, said by email yesterday. “We believe every child deserves a quality education, and we look forward to partnering with Camden’s family and community leaders to bring great neighborhood schools to Camden.

“Over the past 13 years, we have established a track record of breakthrough student results and deep parent and community engagement,” Ballen continued. “We are excited to bring Mastery’s approach to Camden.”

Mastery has become a predominant “turnaround” model for Philadelphia’s troubled public schools, with 15 charter schools or converted district schools now operating in that city.

Mastery was always considered a likely candidate to try its model in Camden, arguably New Jersey’s most troubled public school district.

It won approval in 2010, and appeared primed to come to New Jersey. Its founding executive director, Scott Gordon, said at the time that he would aim to open multiple schools in Camden.

However, they never managed to close a deal on the right location, including a failed bid to open in the former Parkside Elementary School.

But the Camden school board at the time was reluctant to give up space that it said could someday be used again by the district. Negotiations – if it could even be called that -- went nowhere.

In correspondence, obtained by NJ Spotlight, between the Camden board and Mastery’s leaders over the prospect of even meeting, the board’s facility chairman as recently as February declined the invitation and said the board was still considering its options.

“Should the conditions change and we find a need to dispose of any buildings or land, we will make any property available as provided for by state statute,” read the correspondence from Raymond Lamboy, former chair of the committee.

Without a location, ultimately, Mastery’s state approval lapsed after three years, officials said.

Now comes a very different opportunity for the network, as Governor Chris Christie and his administration moving this spring to take over the Camden district and install a new superintendent, Paymon Rouhanifard, while relegating the city’s school board to advisory status.

Rouhanifard, who was appointed to his post in August, would not say yesterday whether he would be willing to lease or sell space to Mastery, noting that the network has yet to even reapply, let alone be approved.

But few doubt that Mastery will get a far better reception in Camden this time around. Rouhanifard’s resume includes jobs with New York City and Newark public schools in which he helped coordinate such partnerships.

Mastery’s renewed plans for Camden came to light last week, as it was one of 12 applicants from New Jersey applying for federal Race to the Top funds aimed at technology and other “personalized learning” improvements.

It stood out as the only New Jersey applicant without an actual school in place in the state. The application was predicated on the prospect that Mastery would have a school open in the state within the federal grant’s five-year timeframe.

Camden schools did not apply for the Race to the Top money, after initially indicating interest over the summer in a letter of intent. But ¬¬¬ Rouhanifard said yesterday that the final deadline was just a month after he took office, and there was not enough time to do the voluminous work required in the process.

“I felt that our bandwidth needed to be prioritized for other essential priorities for school opening and school safety,” he said.

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