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Camden RFP for Renaissance Schools Pulls in Some Big Names

Charter school networks in Philadelphia, NYC, and Washington D.C. among those to respond to call

Camden BOE Building

Camden‘s quest to build more renaissance schools under the Urban Hope Act has attracted some more big names from the charter movement.

The state-operated district last week opened seven new bids to operate the alternative schools -- essentially, charters with more money -- and a review committee is expected to make recommendations in the next week.

The list includes two charter school operators already in the city, but also some prominent ones from the outside, including the Mastery charter school network in Philadelphia, Uncommon Schools organization of Newark and New York City, and the SEEDS Schools from Washington, D.C., a residential school network.

Under the Urban Hope Act, the district can pick up to three new operators, with the final decisions to be made by state Education Commissioner Chris Cerf.

Three public meetings on the proposals will also be held, and state-appointed superintendent Paymon Rouhanifard pledged last week that the community’s voice -- including that of the local advisory board -- would be heard. But Rouhanifard will have the final say on what is recommended to Cerf.

“A team of our leading educators and advisory board representatives has begun the work of evaluating each proposal, and I look forward to hearing their recommendations and beginning the process of exploring these new opportunities with the community before any final decision is made,” Rouhanifard said in a statement.

Unlike traditional charters, renaissance schools operate with approval of local school districts, but they’re also entitled to more aid from the districts and public funding for facilities.

The law calls for up to four such projects in each of three pilot districts -- Camden, Trenton and Newark -- but Camden has so far been the only district to invite submissions. The renaissance schools would be in addition to the 11 charter schools already in the district.

Last year, Camden approved the TEAM charter network to open up to five schools in the city, in a partnership with the Cooper Health Systems and South Jersey businessman and political leader George Norcross. The first TEAM school is slated to open in the fall.

Bidding on its first schools in Camden, Uncommon Schools is the state’s largest charter network, with nine North Star Academy schools in Newark serving 2,800 students. Uncommon Schools also has more than 30 schools in New York City, Boston, Rochester and Troy, NY.

Uncommon School’s proposal is similar to TEAM’s already approved plans, bidding to open its first school next fall and growing to a network of five schools spanning K-12 and serving more than 2,300 students. Its high school would open in 2019.

“We are excited to have the opportunity to potentially serve the students and families of Camden, in partnership with the district, and we look forward to the outcome of this first round of the selection process,” said Barbara Martinez, Uncommon Schools’ chief external affairs officer.

Coming from just across the river in Philadelphia, Mastery is also making its first bid in Camden, and also has made a separate proposal through the state’s charter school process. Mastery operates 15 charter or converted districts schools in Philadelphia, and has become best known for its “turnaround” model for some of the city’s most troubled schools.

SEED Schools are part of the SEED Foundation in Washington, D.C., that operates two charter boarding schools aimed at underprivileged students, one in Washington, D.C., and the other in Baltimore. It also has approvals to open new schools in Ohio and Miami, FL.

Other applicants include one rejected from the previous round: Hope Universal, part of the nonprofit Universal Companies of Philadelphia. In addition, a prominent Camden youth-services organization, Camden Center for Youth Development, has also made a proposal.

Interestingly, two well-established Camden charter networks are seeking to use the Urban Hope Act to expand in the city and take advantage of its freer provisions for schools facilities. They are the Camden Charter School Network, led by its Camden’s Promise Charter School and the LEAP Academy University Charter School.

The founder of LEAP, Gloria Bonilla-Santiago, said the application came out of a belief the charter network could work in close partnership with the new state-appointed administration.

"We applied to be a Renaissance school because the new leadership of the city's public school system is ready to transform the district,” she said in an email. “We want to partner and help upscale LEAP's best practices to the Camden public schools. After all, our original charter calls for LEAP to support Camden's public school system and help all children in Camden."

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