Not one to do things small, George Norcross has enlisted a power-packed partnership of players -- seen and unseen -- in a bid to essentially create a mini-district of new schools for the city of Camden.
It could take a while, with all kinds of hurdles ahead, but the South Jersey political leader and the Cooper Foundation that he chairs have teamed up with the KIPP charter schools, maybe the nation’s best known and one of the Newark’s most successful, to propose their own network of five new schools to serve nearly 3,000 students in Camden.
The proposal is under the state’s brand-new Urban Hope Act, which was enacted a year ago with just this kind of partnership in mind, allowing non-profit groups to enlist outside organizations to build and operate so-called “renaissance schools” in three of the state’s toughest cities.
The Cooper-KIPP proposal is one of three plans that were submitted Friday to Camden’s school board for its required support, and after that, it would still need approval of the state as well.
But in a press conference Friday in the Cooper University Hospital’s glittering lobby, Norcross and others on his team appeared confident that the first of the schools would be opening its doors in the fall of 2014.
“I can’t see how anyone couldn’t support this,” Norcross said several times of the plan.
That’s where some of the unseen allies may come in, namely to work out the first hurdle on the list: acquiring the property in mind.
Central to Norcross’s plan is a vast expanse of vacant land next to the Cooper medical complex in the city’s Lanning Square neighborhood, land that once housed a public school until it was torn down nearly a decade ago for a new one.
But the new school never happened, since the state’s court-ordered school construction program all but stalled, with the land remaining jointly owned by the district and the state’s Schools Development Authority.
The Cooper Foundation sent the SDA a letter on Friday to begin discussions to buy the land, something that the SDA has not done with any of its properties, as the pressure mounts for the agency to get its own projects going.
But Norcross pointed out that Gov. Chris Christie has been an open cheerleader for a new school for Lanning Square, even signing the Urban Hope Act legislation at a nearby school. The governor also stood alongside Norcross in Camden earlier this month at the opening of Cooper’s new medical school.
“When the governor speaks, things happen,” Norcross said Friday, with more than a hint of a smile.
And it wasn’t as if the Christie administration was tempering the expectations too much, either. When contacted Friday, the governor’s press office rereleased his statements of support for the Urban Hope Act from a year ago and said his appearance in Camden for the program speaks to his eagerness to get it going.
By teaming up with KIPP -- which stands for the Knowledge is Power Program -- Norcross also has signed with a charter school organization that has a long track record in New Jersey and the nation. Starting with schools in the Bronx and Houston, KIPP now runs 125 charter schools nationwide for 40,000 students.
In New Jersey, KIPP’s TEAM Academy Charter School in Newark was among the state’s first that opened 15 years ago. Its network has since grown to five Newark schools that will be in operation this fall, serving about 1,800 students from kindergarten through high school.
The Camden program would start with a single elementary school, from preschool through fifth grade, for about 700 students, and grow to add middle school as the students age. A second elementary and middle school will come next as will a high school, possibly in separate locations, Norcross said.
Norcross said he hopes this launches a flurry of such proposals from other civic-minded companies and organizations. The law now allows for only four such projects per city, but as the two other cities in the program, Newark and Trenton, have yet even to solicit proposals, Norcross said maybe Camden can get its allotment, too.
“We believe this could be the beginning of a number of schools, hopefully dozens, that will provide a unique opportunity for the children and families of this city,” he said.
The project opens a new avenue for the KIPP network, too. It once had a charter school in Camden, but disassociated from it after problems arose in its leadership and low performance.
Now it returns to the city with a slightly different model, one built around the Urban Hope Act and its unique financing and governance systems.
Under the law, the schools will operate like charters in conjunction with the state, but must have the consent of the district. And like charters, they will receive public money from the home districts for the students who attend there. In fact, the funding will be more generous than charters receive, helping to finance the new construction.
Ryan Hill, the executive director of TEAM, said the additional financing and the help with facilities were a lure of the Urban Hope Act in general and the Camden project specifically.
“The funding was one advantage, and we really like the idea of the catchment area,” he said. “And the facility is a huge part of it. There is facility funding for charter schools, so we are always on the hunt for space.
“In Newark, we are in parochial schools or sharing space with the district. We have one new one coming, but this will be the best of any of those.”