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Camden Gets Ready for Debut of Three New Charter-School Networks

State-appointed superintendent releases contract details; critics say charters get special treatment

Paymon Rouhanifard
Camden Schools Superintendent Paymon Rouhanifard

As Camden looks ahead to a pivotal year that will be marked by a major influx of new charter schools, the district’s state-appointed superintendent has finalized agreements that could lead to a single enrollment system for those schools in the future.

Superintendent Paymon Rouhanifard yesterday released details of the contracts signed with two charter networks that will be opening their first schools in the city this fall under the state’s new Urban Hope Act.

The networks – Mastery Schools and Uncommon Schools – have each been approved to open as many as five “renaissance schools” in the city as part of a 10-year commitment. Under the new law, the “renaissance schools” operate like independent charter schools, but must draw from specific neighborhoods.

A third network – the KIPP charter school network – was approved and had its contract finalized previously, also under the Urban Hope Act. It, too, aims to open five new schools.

All told, starting this fall, the schools planned by the three networks stand to vastly remake what is arguably the state’s most troubled district over the next decade.

The latest contracts reflect a synergy between the district and charter schools that brings to mind the controversial “One Newark” plan in the state-run Newark schools.

"Camden families deserve great schools, and these contracts are a significant step forward in ensuring that renaissance schools serve all students well,” Rouhanifard said last night.

The Camden contracts include requirements that the “renaissance school” charters annually make a full accounting of their performance in areas ranging from student achievement to attrition rates.

They will be required to serve – and pay for – special-needs students with the most significant disabilities, even those ultimately placed in a specialized outside setting. Charter schools in general have faced criticism for allegedly excluding such kids, or coaxing them back to the districts once high costs kick in.

The charters will also have to prove that they are providing social and emotional support for all students, including suitable discipline policies.

Perhaps most notably, the contracts -- at least tentatively – make them part of a single-enrollment system, like that in Newark, in which students and families go through a central system to sign up for both district schools and charter schools of their choice.

The “One Newark” initiative has been the focus of intense protests from those who claim it favors charters, among other complaints.

Such a system would not be put in place in Camden in the coming year, officials said, and the contracts only read that the charters would participate “should the district adopt a common enrollment system.” Officials said there would be extensive community discussions before such a decision.

“We are … excited about engaging with the community in the future about the promise of a common enrollment system, which we believe could simplify school access for all families," Rouhanifard said.

Still, the contracts specifically say the charters will be expected to participate in the design of the single-enrollment system and that they must provide relevant information to the central administrator.

The public release of the charter agreements sparked criticism that the new charter networks are getting special treatment.

“What's striking is these contracts fail to require compliance with the standards that govern public schools,” said David Sciarra, executive director of the Education Law Center. “Even more troubling, the contracts allow these out-of-state charter chains to operate without any accountability to Camden school children, parents and community they are supposed to serve.”

Another legal obstacle that had been facing the two latest Camden charter networks has been the fact that they don’t yet have permanent locations for their new schools, which had been required under state law.

The law has since been amended by the Legislature to allow for temporary quarters and even sharing of some public school district facilities, but that legislation has yet to be signed by Christie.

Efforts to reach Mastery Schools officials yesterday were unsuccessful, and a spokeswoman for Uncommon Schools only said that the network is looking forward to opening its first school in the Camden.

“We are eager to work with the community and district to put Camden students on the path to college,” said Barbara Martinez, the network’s chief external officer.

In the meantime, Rouhanifard has pressed ahead with reforms both with the new charter schools and also in the existing district schools. He announced last week the appointment of principals – who will undergo intensive training from August into the fall -- who will run the district’s 26 schools.

He said school “information cards” with extensive data beyond what is required by the state will be made available to the public for every Camden school, and he announced plans for the next few months to hold a series of “Let’s Talk About Great Schools” public forums for families and residents to air their questions, suggestions and concerns.

Yesterday, Rouhanifard also released a quarterly progress report on pledges included over the winter in his “Camden Commitment” strategic plan, including new safety measures, access to greater technology, and more school choices.

“The Camden Commitment is our short-term roadmap to help achieve our goal of every student attending an excellent school, and this progress report makes clear we are advancing toward that goal,” Rouhanifard said.

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