Program gives failing Camden students a second chance

Seventeen-year-old James Norman is on the honor roll in the Camelot program at Woodrow Wilson High School. He has dreams of becoming a singer one day.

“Two years ago, I lost a friend to gang violence and that hit me, life isn’t a joke. You can be here one day and gone the next,” said Norman.

Before entering the program, Norman was missing class and getting into trouble on the streets. Kareem Ali, the head of the Camelot program at Woodrow Wilson High School, says it took him several home visits to figure out what was really going on.

“He or she is coming in and they haven’t slept, they haven’t eaten, I need to at least get to the bottom of that. Let’s address that before I expect a child to come in the classroom and want to learn,” said Ali.

“I knew they cared for my betterment, so I was like alright, I’m going to really stick with it,” said Norman.

That philosophy is the root of Camelot, a program that runs in partnership with the Camden City School District to help students who have fallen behind. With the accelerated program a student with zero credits can graduate in two and a half years.

“Every semester is considered one school year,” said John Garrity, the regional director of the Camelot program.

It’s done by having extended days and eliminating some elective courses that aren’t graduation requirements.

“Since we’ve been here in 2011, we’ve graduated over 450 kids,” said Garrity. “We graduate 95 to 100 percent of our kids, which compared to the comprehensive high schools, there 45 to 55 percent of their kids graduate.”

What you realize after talking with the heads of this program is that one of the reasons it works is that the people running it know what it means to be given a second chance.

“I was kicked out of high school. I was also kicked out of my first college for behavior type issues, so I can almost somewhat relate to that. And what’s most important is I had a school and a man that gave me a second opportunity, and without that man or that school, I wouldn’t be sitting here with you today,” said Garrity.

Ali said he was also going down the wrong path when he was younger, but it was his coach that guided him not only in sports, but in life too.

Without someone to guide him on the right path, Ali said, “I’d probably be dead. I’m being dead honest, I’d probably be dead.”

“He broke statistics, he was a young, black male, he made it out. That’s something I want to do in life,” said Norman.

James now mentors a fifth grade student. You can call it paying it forward.

“I have kids that don’t know their fathers, and I didn’t know my father. So with Mr. Ali, I can see myself doing what he’s doing helping other kids, beating the statistics,” said Norman.

“What he’s doing is wonderful there as a mentor at Urban Promise,” Ali said. “What was done for me, I’m giving back. If I wasn’t getting a penny for it, I would still be doing this type of work. It’s just a blessing. It’s honestly a blessing.”