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Five of Camden District’s Worst Public Schools Will Go the Charter Route

Most students will stay in same neighborhood schools while new private operators take over facilities

Paymon Rouhanifard
Camden schools Superintendent Paymon Rouhanifard

More than one year after Gov. Chris Christie announced plans to take over and transform Camden’s schools, the state yesterday took its biggest step yet with the unveiling of plans to turn five of the district’s most troubled schools to charter school operators.

The announcement by Camden Superintendent Paymon Rouhanifard and Mayor Dana Redd was the culmination of a month-long roll-out in which the superintendent has been laying out the broad outline of the plans in meetings with the community.

In his first full school year in the district, Rouhanifard had focused on building public support and taking a few smaller steps in improving the long-maligned district, such as bolstering security and improving technology.

But there was little question that bolder action was to come, as Rouhanifard last year was forced to cut more than 200 teaching positions and the problems that prompted the state takeover were hardly going away.

“I think the community is demanding change,” Rouhanifard said in an interview last week. “They do want to see something different, so their kids feel safe, their kids are in a modern facility, and their kids are being challenged and getting the best education possible.

“I don’t think anybody in Camden disagrees on those issues,” he said.

During the superintendent’s first year at the helm, the state’s first “renaissance schools” – essentially charter schools, but with greater resources and tighter controls on enrollment – opened their first of what would ultimately be 15 school facilities in Camden under the state’s new Urban Hope Act.

The announcement yesterday takes those “renaissance schools” to the next level, as Rouhanifard said all three approved charter networks running the city’s “renaissance schools” would take over five of Camden’s lowest-achieving schools.

Mastery Charter Schools, the Philadelphia-based program now with a single school in Camden, is slated to take over three more: Rafael Molina, Frances McGraw and East Camden Middle. The Uncommon School network, best known for its North Star Schools in Newark and currently operating one school in Camden, will add the Henry Bonsall School, renaming it Camden Prep Bonsall Elementary School.

And in the one school closure that is part of the plan, students at Camden’s current Whittier School will move to a new building in Lanning Square operated by the TEAM Academy charter network, part of the national KIPP network.

Each of the three networks had been approved to operate five new schools under the Urban Hope Act, and these three would be among those five, officials said.

Each charter operator will be required to make renovations to the existing schools, and officials stressed that “renaissance schools” continue to be required to draw students from specific neighborhoods, one thing that distinguishes them from other charter schools.

Rouhanifard said the moves aim to address a variety of challenges facing district, and especially these five schools, including antiquated buildings and dismally low student outcomes.

For instance, fewer than 10 percent of students at Bonsall School are at grade level in math and language arts. At McGraw, barely 20 percent are proficient in math and reading.

Rouhanifard noted that each move keeps neighborhood schools intact, moving the new operators into existing buildings rather than relocating the students. In each case, students already in the schools will remain in those schools.

“Families here want great neighborhood schools,” Rouhanifard said last week. “Yes, they are thankful in some cases where they can find a charter across town, but they would rather not schlep all the way there. They want a great neighborhood school.

“And in our view, in schools struggling the most, it is OK to ask for help,” he said. “And we believe one path forward is partnering with renaissance schools, because they are neighborhood schools.”

Still, the moves are not likely to go unchallenged. Community and legal advocates have already questioned whether the existing “renaissance schools” are living up to their promises to enroll equal numbers of special-needs students, a claim the schools and the district dispute.

In addition, the changes will likely come with staff reductions due to expected shortfalls in the coming budget. In the case of the school transitions, existing staff would have opportunities to re-apply for jobs but would not be guaranteed positions.

The district is buoyed by a just-approved contract with the teachers union that includes extra benefits for early retirement. The district has refused to provide the details of that provision as yet, but it would clearly lessen the pressure of layoffs, at least to the extent of last year.

Nonetheless, the district is also enlisting the union’s help in making the overall plan work.

Rouhanifard has said over the last month that he wants to address problems at the 10 schools most in need of improvement, and while not a major piece of the announcement yesterday, he said the district would expand its partnership with the union in seeking to improve five more schools.

The New Jersey Education Association, the statewide union, already runs a “Priority School” program in five Camden schools and would add another five more, bringing union resources in for parent outreach, teacher coaching and other measures.

Edward Richardson, the NJEA’s executive director, said yesterday that the details are still being worked out, but that the union hopes to play a part in sustaining the city’s traditional public schools.

Richardson said the reduction of teaching positions has been a long time coming in the district, and that the early retirements should help. At the same time, he also said he hopes the district doesn’t move too quickly on having charter organizations take over schools.

“We want to retain the traditional school model,” he said. ‘That’s why we want to make this investment. … We don’t want people to presume that any less is happening in traditional schools than renaissance schools.”

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