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Two New Charter Networks Win Endorsement to Operate in Camden

Superintendent announces choice of two well-regarded, established organizations to operate up to eight new schools

Paymon Rouhanifard
Camden Schools Superintendent Paymon Rouhanifard

Following up on this week’s unveiling of his strategic plan for improving what is arguably New Jersey’s most troubled school district, Camden Superintendent Paymon Rouhanifard yesterday announced that two charter school organizations have been chosen to operate new “renaissance schools” in the city and reported progress on the long-sought rebuilding of Camden High School.

The state-run district announced that it will recommend that the Mastery Charter Schools network and the Uncommon Schools network to be the next organizations to be approved under the Urban Hope Act, the 2012 state law that allows a hybrid version of charter schools to open in Camden, one of three pilot districts covered under the legislation.

The two were chosen from seven applicants who responded to the district’s request for proposals. Two charter organizations that are already established in the city were turned down.

While both networks chosen this week aim to open schools this year, specifics of actual plans are not yet determined. Each put forward broad proposals: Mastery seeks to open three elementary schools in time for the next school year, while Uncommon proposed opening five schools over several years, spanning kindergarten through 12th grade.

But those plans are the starting points, officials said, and the next step in the process requires the school district and the charter organizations to develop detailed plans before submitting them to the state for final approval.

Rouhanifard said he will hold meetings around the city over the next month as part of public discussions of his strategic plan before it is made final. The local advisory board will be presented that final plan in late February before it is submitted to the state, he said.

Both charter organizations will be new to Camden, but each has built a notable track record elsewhere.

Mastery has been prominent in Philadelphia, focusing on turning around existing public schools with new leadership and programs, and is now involved with 15 schools in that city. Its proposal for Camden could involve the same “turnaround” model or opening new schools, or a combination of the two, said Scott Gordon, chief executive of Mastery.

“The powerful thing about the Urban Hope Act is we serve at the pleasure of the district and fit into the superintendent’s strategy,” Gordon said in an interview. “If it’s turnarounds, we’d be delighted to do that, or if stand-alones, we’d be happy to do that.”

In a separate application process, Mastery is seeking state permission to open a stand-alone charter school in the Camden district.

Uncommon Schools is one of the country’s best-known charter organizations and was one of New Jersey’s first, starting in Newark with the North Star Academy charter schools in 1998. It now has 38 schools in Newark, New York City, Rochester and Troy, NY.

In Camden, it has proposed a network of five schools serving more than 2,300 students, starting with an elementary school and growing into a new high school to be opened in 2019.

“We are excited about the opportunity to potentially serve the students and families of Camden, in partnership with the district,” said Barbara Martinez, spokeswoman for Uncommon Schools. “We look forward to engaging with the Camden community in the upcoming citywide meetings.”

Meanwhile, Rouhanifard added in the announcement that the district had received assurances from the Schools Development Authority about the long-awaited major renovation of Camden High School, a project that has stalled for nearly a decade.

The SDA’s new director, Charles McKenna, met with Rouhanifard to discuss the project this week. Details were unavailable, but the SDA has been active since McKenna’s arrival, moving forward in some high-profile projects, including work on Trenton High School.

Efforts to speak with McKenna yesterday were unsuccessful, but he said in a statement released through the district that the Camden High project is now on the SDA’s active list of capital projects, the first step in the process of new design and construction.

“I am excited about the opportunity to work with Superintendent Rouhanifard, and we are committed to remedy the building conditions at Camden High School,” McKenna said in the statement.

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