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Op-Ed: Taking Stock of Camden’s New ‘Renaissance Schools,’ One Year Later

Some of the city’s poorest, most challenging students have made sizable strides in math and language arts in a single school year

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Janellen Duffy (left) and Michele Mason

A little over a year ago, “renaissance schools” were about to open in Camden, and by the sound of things you would’ve thought the sky was going to fall. According to the critics, “renaissance schools” were going to “destroy” public education and fail to serve the same high-need students as district schools.

So now that these new public schools -- a hybrid of district and charter schools --have served Camden students for a year, let’s take a look and see whom these schools served and how they did.

In year one, KIPP and Uncommon served kindergartners and Mastery served students in grades K-5. As of last spring, 99 percent of KIPP students, 97 percent of Camden Prep (Uncommon) students, and close to 97 percent of Mastery students qualified for free lunch.

Furthermore, according to annual reports that renaissance schools have to submit to the state, 16 percent of KIPP kindergarteners and 17 percent of Uncommon kindergartners were classified as needing special-education services, while Mastery’s rate of special-education classifications was 19 percent.

In addition, “renaissance schools” served English Language Learners (ELL) -- 5 percent of KIPP students and 10 percent of Mastery students were ELL. It is clear from the data that the “renaissance schools” did in fact serve Camden students with the greatest needs.

Now that we know whom “renaissance schools” served, let’s take a deeper dive into how those students did. Although “renaissance schools” do not yet have statewide assessment data, internal assessments, disclosed in annual reporting, highlight positive growth thus far and are worth mentioning.

Uncommon’s Camden Prep students showed progress on internal assessments in both reading and math. For example, STEP reading assessments revealed that just 19 percent of students entering in the fall hit literacy benchmarks. However, by June 90 percent of students were at or above the end-of-year benchmark. In mathematics, internal assessment revealed that 36 percent of students hit proficiency benchmarks in the beginning of the year, and by the spring, 84 percent were proficient. Following a longer school year filled with extended school days of rigorous instruction that emphasizes math and literacy skills, Uncommon is starting to see results and kids are beginning to hit benchmarks.

What about KIPP? According to the nationally normed Measures of Academic Progress (MAP) assessment that measures student learning growth over time, data showed that nationally, the average KIPP kindergartner started in the 37th percentile in reading. By the end of the year, the average student was in the 63rd percentile nationally. In fact, KIPP went from having 10 percent of its students in the top quartile to 41 percent in the top quartile for reading. In math, their average student started school in the 25th percentile nationally and ended the year in the 68th percentile, with 5 percent of students starting the year in the top quartile and 51 percent of students ending the year there. These gains were the largest across the high-performing KIPP NJ network.

Mastery used the Fountas and Pinnell nationally normed reading assessment to track students’ progress in grades K-3. Because the vast majority of Mastery students enter school reading far below grade level, their goal is to have students improve reading levels by 1.25 to 1.5 levels per year until they catch up to their peers. In Mastery’s first year of operation, the average student gained significantly more than a year and third-graders actually grew by 1.8 grade levels in a single year.

These results are promising and give us greater hope that new high-quality options are emerging for Camden students. And now that “renaissance schools” are starting to demonstrate progress, families are taking action. Allison Steele of the Philadelphia Inquirer reported that most families chose to stay in new "renaissance schools" this year even when given the option of transferring to other public schools—early enrollment numbers indicated that between 72 and 83 percent of students remained in their new neighborhood schools.

What’s more, KIPP moved in to a brand-new, $45 million facility that makes good on a promise that many others had broken to a much-maligned Lanning Square neighborhood. Renovation plans should be released soon for the schools the “renaissance” partners are transforming, and Mastery and Uncommon Camden Prep have plans for new buildings as well.

These promising results, plus progress on new facilities, give us a lot to be hopeful about for Camden students. Local leaders in Camden, including the school board and Superintendent Rouhanifard, worked to recruit some of the best nonprofit public school organizations in the country to run the new renaissance schools, and these schools have gotten down to work and are starting to produce results.

Not only is the sky not falling, but also the sun is shining brighter on Camden public schools than it has in years.

Michele Mason lives in Camden and leads JerseyCAN’s work there. Janellen Duffy is the Executive Director for JerseyCAN: The New Jersey Campaign for Achievement Now.

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