School officials say PARCC scores show Camden moving in right direction

There was a kind of pep rally feel to Tuesday’s press conference at Camden Prep, where the acting superintendent and city officials gathered to celebrate advances made by Camden students on the standardized PARCC tests.

Since the state takeover of the city’s schools in 2013, the city has seen a shift toward so-called renaissance schools — a charter/traditional school hybrid — and charters, with more than half of the city’s kids now enrolled in renaissance or charter schools. Tuesady’s scores, which showed double-digit jumps in PARCC scores at the mostly charter schools listed, are a result of the district’s new focus on school choice, said acting superintendent Katrina McCombs.

“By partnering with schools across the city to empower families to choose the best school for their child for a fair and unified enrollment system, we have allowed more students to secure seats in the school they believe will offer them the best education,” said McCombs. “All these changes have resulted in more Camden students reading and doing math as well as, or better than, their peers across the state.”

McCombs admits that, citywide, PARCC score increases are much more modest than the 29 percent jump in English/Language Arts and 24 percent jump in math scores seen at Camden Prep, which is one of 53 schools in New York and New Jersey managed by Uncommon Schools. Lately, officials have dropped the word charter when referring to the schools where a majority of the city’s kids go, preferring, instead, the term “partner.”

McCombs says she doesn’t care what you call a good school so long as it’s a good school. But Keith Benson, the head of the teacher’s union, which has been critical of the state takeover and the turn toward charters, says it’s not as simple as that.

“Renaissance schools are takeover schools pushed into our communities for a reason that has a lot to do with broader reasons like redevelopment and trying to remake the demographics of this city,” he suggests. “And folks now, and urban planners know, that it’s very difficult to remake a city when the existing public school system is existing as it is. So in order to rebrand it, remake it, they create these new formulas, or new models of public education in terms of corporate charters, and you see them only pushed in urban districts like ours.”

The superintendent says the positive scores show the need to spread the gospel of charter and renaissance schools across “all school types,” meaning traditional public schools, too. But critics like Benson say don’t let the rosy numbers fool you. Real reform takes time, he says, and lasting change can’t be measured by short-term results on a standardized test, which, ironically, the state says may not be the best way to measure student success anyway.