More Renaissance Schools for State-Controlled Camden District?

Camden issues RFP for up to three more ‘renaissance schools,’ even though its first is still to open

Camden Schools Superintendent Paymon Rouhanifard
Still waiting for its first “renaissance school” to open, the state-run Camden district is hoping to encourage more of this new breed of charters to move into the city.

Superintendent Paymon Rouhanifard yesterday announced that the district had put out a request for proposals (RFP) for up to three additional renaissance projects.

Renaissance schools are a variation on conventional charters. Like their more common counterparts they are operated by independent charter organizations. But they are financed differently and follow different rules, including the requirement that the local district must approve them.

Authorized under the 2011 Urban Hope Act, the state’s first and only renaissance school — run in partnership between the KIPP charter school network, Cooper Health, and South Jersey businessman and political leader George Norcross — is slated to open in Camden in 2014.

That project is still a work in progress, with hopes all but dashed for a new building to be ready in downtown Lanning Square by next September and instead temporary quarters planned for the first year.

The district’s recent RFP is one of its first major initiatives since Gov. Chris Christie announced the state’s takeover this past spring.

The RFP is also on deadIine, since the Urban Hope Act requires that the pilot districts have proposals in the works by February 2014. Camden is the only one of three districts covered by the act — the other two Newark and Trenton — that has even sought proposals at this point.

Rouhanifard said he saw the process as a chance to weigh a range of proposals for the district, and he had no preconceived notions as to who would be approved or how many projects would result.

“We are not going into this with a number in mind,” he said in an interview yesterday. “We want the opportunity to explore the options, and we suspect there will be some interest.”

The KIPP-Cooper-Norcross project was one of four plans proposed in the first round of applicants last year; the others came from inside and outside of New Jersey.

Another possible player is the Mastery school network of Philadelphia, which has long sought to come into the district and has a separate charter school application before the state.

Rouhanifard said the RFP is seeking organizations with a “proven track record” and also the capacity to scale up quickly. He said the district would be amenable to having the new schools on track to open as soon as the fall of 2014.

The new KIPP-Cooper-Norcross Academy in Lanning Square, one of up to five schools that the project would lead to, was slated to open in a new building in September. But the head of the KIPP team in New Jersey yesterday said that was all but certain not to happen, with design and construction bids still out.

Questions about how the project would be financed and how its space allotted slowed the construction process, said Ryan Hill, president of the TEAM charter school network, KIPP’s New Jersey organization that would lead the new school.

He said instead there would likely be temporary space erected on the site for next fall, as construction is completed. His organization will start information sessions for prospective students in the next month or two.

Hill said the ultimate plan calls for a 1,100-student school would still be realized, and that it would follow closely the design for the site that was pledged by the state almost a decade ago but then stalled under the Schools Development Authority.

“The idea is still to build the school long promised for the district and never delivered,” he said.