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Op-Ed: A Rising Tide in Camden — Continued School Progress

Key to the turnaround: strong leadership and continued hard work and commitment of students, teachers, parents, and administrators

Janellen Duffy
Janellen Duffy

Last week marked the third annual release of school-by-school PARCC scores — and the third year in a row of sustained academic progress. With each year that passes, New Jersey students continue to show improvement on the statewide PARCC assessment, and Camden students are no exception. This is a hopeful trend that suggests that the changes underway in the Camden education system are working and should be sustained.

All across Camden, more students are achieving proficiency than ever before. According to the latest round of PARCC scores, over 300 more students are proficient in reading and math. What’s so remarkable about this progress is that it’s happening in both district and renaissance schools (district/charter school partnerships).

How has Camden been able to begin to turn things around for its students? That answer is multifaceted, but strong leadership and the continued hard work and commitment of students, teachers, parents, and administrators have played a large role.

In 2014, Superintendent Paymon Rouhanifard introduced the Camden Commitment, a plan to ensure every student in the city is enrolled in an excellent school that meets his or her needs. To work toward this goal, the superintendent created community partnerships, expanded the city’s successful district schools, and transformed low-performing schools into renaissance schools. And this idea — that making schools safer, fostering thoughtful and intentional community engagement, and offering families more high-quality school options will lift the tide of student achievement in all schools — is working.

Steady progress

Elementary and middle-school results across the district are steadily making headway. Since the PARCC exams were administered in the 2014-2015 school year, English Language Arts proficiency has grown by six percentage points across the district, and schools have achieved a 4.5 percentage point increase in math proficiency. Moreover, in that same period, nearly nine percent of the district’s students went up two levels on the exam. Some schools, like Forest Hill and Cramer Elementary, more than doubled their proficiency in math and English Language Arts last year. District high schools are also taking substantial steps forward in other areas, including a 21 percentage point increase in the high school graduation rate since 2012 and a 53 percent drop in suspensions last year. Progress is happening — slowly but steadily.

The results from Camden’s renaissance schools demonstrate significant strides in reading and math proficiency as well. In English Language Arts, proficiency rates of Uncommon Schools Camden Prep’s students grew from 20.5 percent in 2015-2016 to 35 percent last year. Even more impressive, Camden Prep students showed a 20 percentage point increase in math proficiency — moving from 28.4 percent to 48.6 percent of students hitting grade-level benchmarks. Camden’s other two renaissance school partners, KIPP Cooper Norcross Academy and Mastery Schools of Camden, continue to show gains. Student proficiency in math rose 8.8 percentage points and 4.1 percentage points, respectively, since the 2015-2016 school year. The majority of renaissance schools’ students qualify for free and reduced-price lunch, and these gains are nothing short of extraordinary considering what was achieved in a relatively short amount of time.

The continued progress of Camden’s three renaissance school partners — and the improvements seen across the district as a whole — strongly suggest that the reforms underway in Camden are having a ripple effect across different types of schools in the district.

A long way to go

While these advancements give us hope, the latest PARCC results also show that district and renaissance schools have a long way to go in preparing students for college and career. Less than three percent of district high schoolers reached proficiency on math exams and only one in 10 high schoolers reached ELA proficiency. We must keep pushing ahead until 100 percent of Camden students reach proficiency, graduate on time, and have the foundation to pursue whatever college or career path they choose.

The bright side is that schools across Camden continue to show growth each year. With these new PARCC results, we’re one step closer to making good on the promise of delivering a high-quality education to all of Camden’s children. As we look ahead, it is important that we continue to hold our students to high standards, and that we are able to measure progress towards those goals.

Janellen Duffy is the executive director of JerseyCAN, the New Jersey Campaign for Achievement Now, a nonprofit organization that advocates for all students across the state to have access to high-quality schools. JerseyCAN works to improve policies and programs to support equity and excellence in New Jersey education.

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