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Op-Ed: Working Together for Camden's Kids

We're seeing results: Dropout rates are declining, test scores are up, and people are feeling better about the quality of education offered in Camden schools than ever before

Paymon Rouhanifard and Gary Frazier
Paymon Rouhanifard and Gary Frazier

There is always a lot of discussion and debate when it comes to education. It makes sense, there's nothing that rightfully should elicit more passion from a community than its children.

Sometimes, however, what gets lost in that passion can be the examples of real collaboration and partnership that ultimately are the keys to student success.

In Camden, though they rarely get talked about or mentioned, we've seen the fruits of this collaboration begin to emerge through a true partnership approach to school improvement — Community Schools.

Launched at the beginning of the 2015-2016 school year as a school improvement partnership effort between the Camden City School District and the New Jersey Education Association, the Community Schools initiative has focused on helping revitalize and reinvigorate traditional district schools by tapping into the power of the local community.

Today in Camden, there are five Community Schools — Brimm Medical Arts High School, along with Dudley, Yorkship, Veterans, and Wiggins Family Schools. Thanks to the leadership of the NJEA and strong partnership with the district as a whole, each of these schools has made great strides. Teachers, school leaders, and parents have been empowered to work closely with community partners to help provide the resources and opportunities students need to be successful. Whether it's been healthy cooking and sewing classes, free eye exams at Dudley, back-to-school supply giveaways at Yorkship, or countless other examples — the teachers and leaders at these schools have come together alongside the community to help make a difference.

And we're seeing results across the city. Dropout rates are declining, test scores are up, and people are feeling better about the quality of education offered in Camden schools than ever before.

This is what happens when people come together and put kids first. It's what happens when we let communities drive reforms. We can't let this momentum stop. With that in mind, we need right now to come together as a community to advocate that Camden schools continue to receive the resources and supports they need to help students thrive.

It's critical that Camden schools this year receive at least the same amount of funding from the state that they have over the past two years. While we're excited to hear about a commitment to fully fund the School Funding Reform Act from Gov. Murphy, we need consistent support in the meantime to make sure we can continue to support Community Schools in Camden.

Finally, it's time for the New Jersey School Development Authority to get serious about its obligations to adequately funding school construction in Abbott Districts like Camden. At the start of the most recent administration in Camden, over half of the buildings were constructed before 1928. The pain of having such old facilities is felt directly by students and staff. Whether it's bursting pipes, aging HVAC systems, or dilapidated roofs — the needs are real. Most recently, a burst pipe at Cream School caused the displacement of over 300 students and families, in what was the fifth such incident in the building's history. As an Abbott district, Camden is reliant on the SDA to complete all major capital projects, and we need help. Schools like Cream need major capital improvements if we're going to continue to provide students and families with the learning environment they need to be successful. Together, we're asking the SDA to work with us in addressing these needs.

There will always be a lot of noise when it comes to education. But we've seen firsthand what's possible when we put differences aside and work together for our students. We're committed to continuing to do so, and ask anyone who wants to be a part of that solution to join us.

Nancy Holmes is the NJEA's UniServ representative in Camden. Gary Frazier is a community activist from Camden. Paymon Rouhanifard is Camden's superintendent of schools.

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