Camden Schools Takeover: Day One, and Counting

Teachers at Camden High hope the state recognizes the challenges they're up against -- and their pride in their school

The president of the State Board of Education yesterday characterized the formal approval of the takeover of Camden’s public schools as “historic.”

To the teachers in Camden High School, however, the event was less than momentous.

“That happened today?” said one, as she climbed into her car a few hours after the board’s unanimous vote — another school day done, a few more to go until summer.

The board approved the takeover with barely a discussion, at least in public. Two board members said they wished it had not come to this. Two Camden advocates who came to the meeting to hear the news left in silence.

“I just hope they recognize what we have here,” the teacher added, speaking anonymously. “There are a lot of good people, working really hard.”

That comment encapsulates the challenges facing the Christie administration as it undertakes another ambitious effort to remake urban schools, this time with the state’s fourth takeover of a district and the first in almost two decades.

Now the real work begins, in places like Camden High School, the gothic and stately “Castle on the Hill” that all but symbolizes the district’s massive troubles.

Despite its proud title, the building itself is beyond tired. Protective scaffolding rises up at its two ends to protect students from falling masonry. It had been slated for replacement by the state – another unfulfilled promise — but is now being repaired instead.

The 900-student school sees barely half of its students graduate in four years. Last year, only half the students passed the state’s High School Proficiency Assessment in language arts, only a fifth in math.

Other noteworthy numbers: Almost eight in 10 students are poor enough to qualify for subsidized meals. Close to 40 percent of students are identified as having disabilities and special needs.

But conversations with close to a dozen teachers yesterday brought a plea that the public not be too quick to label their school as failing without considering the challenges they face.

“We have a good crew here,” said Joseph Kennett, a special education teacher for the past two years. “The people here are good, but you should hear the stories we face every day, who was shot, who is hurt. You have to know we’re fighting the streets and the gangs, too.”

The teachers interviewed were not necessarily against the state’s intervention, although they were a bit leery. The Regional Achievement Centers that are the keystone of reform efforts in places like Camden have not engendered much good will of late, they said.

One veteran science teacher said the state agent’s biggest advice to her was to post student work in her classroom.

“They are telling us what we need on our walls?” said the teacher, one of many who did not want to give her name due to possible retaliation.

Others said it could be new beginning for the district, one that could bring new leadership, provide a common vision for administrators and programs that now often pull in different directions.

“This is a system that needs a fresh start,” said a math teacher. “To have a fresh perspective, a different look, I think it will help.”

“It will be nice to be on one accord,” she continued. “People all have their visions, but we need to be on one unified vision, where people are held accountable from top to bottom.”

But there was no shortage of complaints.

One teacher said after years of too few field trips, now there are too many — taking students out of class on a regular basis.

The outdated textbooks are another common concern, one that the state has already tried to address with a massive purchase of new supplies for next year.

“The curriculum feels like it is two decades behind,” said the math teacher.

Only a few said that resources were lacking, but several noted that they were more a patchwork than a cohesive package. There are plenty of smartboards said one instructor, but the classroom computers are past their prime and, “The Internet goes out all the time.”

But for all the problems, Kennett, the special education teacher, asked that that the community’s pride in its central high school not be discounted.

“There is a lot of pride in Camden High School,” he said, describing how people lined up to watch the school’s state championship basketball team this winter. “I don’t think people want to lose that.”

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