The KIPP-Cooper-Norcross School is now just a nondescript collection of portable classrooms located in the shadows of Camden’s downtown Cooper Health complex.
But in four steel-framed classrooms that are more utilitarian than aesthetic, 105 kindergarteners in blue uniform shirts represent the first class of this hybrid charter school, which could potentially help transform the city’s troubled public schools.
At least that’s the Christie administration’s plan.
The district’s state-appointed superintendent, Paymon Rouhanifard, last week announced that next year he will turn over control of five of the district’s lowest-performing schools to operators of the district’s fledgling “renaissance schools,” a form of charter schools with both greater resources and greater accountability.
And the most dramatic of the moves will take place in the city’s Lanning Square neighborhood next fall, when the KIPP charter network will move out of the trailers and into a gleaming brick-and-glass school, absorbing the one district school – the century-old Whittier School -- that is closing outright under Rouhanifard’s plan.
“Opportunities for children and families are changing in Camden in ways not imagined just a year ago,” said Drew Martin, executive director of KIPP’s Camden schools.
“We are thrilled to have the chance to open our new state-of-the-art school building to offer a needed option to the kids of Whittier.”
When visited earlier this month before the full plans were announced, Martin left little doubt that KIPP is eager to take on the expanded role.
“In so far as we can work with the district in providing a safe and quality space for children, we will do that,” Martin said.
“Wouldn’t that be awesome, a charter school giving free space to the district?” he said. “That’s a storyline you haven’t heard much before.”The move doesn’t come without debate. The “renaissance schools” in Camden have drawn criticism from some activists who maintain they haven’t lived up to their promise of serving all students equally.
The Education Law Center, the Newark-based advocacy group, this month released an analysis of district data that indicated during their first year the “renaissance schools” – including KIPP-Cooper-Norcross -- had enrolled a smaller share of students with special needs than public schools in the district.
The analysis also found that the KIPP school in its first year had drawn just half of its students from the Lanning Square neighborhood, despite the strictures of the model that made drawing students from that section of the city a top priority.
Both Rouhanifard and KIPP shot back that the ELC’s numbers weren’t accurate, or at least compared the wrong things. For instance, KIPP said that it had close to 20 percent of its kindergarteners receiving special-education services, well above the district average, but that many were not identified until after the October data in the ELC count.
“When you do apples and apples, the numbers (of special-needs students) are the same as ours, and in some cases higher,” Rouhanifard said in an interview.
Whatever the numbers, the new superintendent has put great stock in ability of the charter networks behind the “renaissance schools” to help transform his own district schools. In addition to KIPP, the other charter networks involved are Mastery and Uncommon Schools.
In the interview, Rouhanifard said from his downtown offices that he knows there will be some backlash in reaction to turning over any district schools to charter operators. But the superintendent pointed to community meetings across the city over the last month in which parents called for more of the “renaissance schools,” not less.
“That is not the way families think about it,” he said. “To them, a great school is a great school is a great school.”
The recent visit to the KIPP Cooper Norcross trailers showed a school that was confident in its model. Each class had 24 to 28 students, each with at least two co-teachers. One of the nation’s largest charter school networks, KIPP has developed its own procedures and processes for a smooth-running classroom, and it was evident.
“There is no wasted time,” Martin said, as he oversaw students in one classroom moving from a group lesson at the front of the room to taking their individual assigned seats. “There is a procedure, and everyone knows what to do.”
He said there are adjustments made along the way, especially for kindergartners who tend to nap more at the beginning of the year than the end. “Kids change, so schedules change,” Martin said.
Still, the KIPP operation in Camden has been a learning experience, especially in light of the different state requirements for the “renaissance schools.”
Martin worked in the previous decade with KIPP’s charter network in Newark, and he said are some clear differences.
For instance, he said, the fact that “renaissance schools” get more resources from the district than traditional charter schools was indeed a benefit. In one case, KIPP was able to hire a social worker to work with just one grade in the Camden school, which would have been unlikely to happen in Newark.
Still, the Camden school is also adjusting to the new requirements to draw students from specific neighborhoods or “catchments.” Martin acknowledged that the Camden school was under-enrolled in the first year from the Lanning Square area, one of the points made in the ELC analysis.
But Martin said due, in part, to not having a school building in place, and that not even all of the trailers were ready for use at the time of registration.
“We were recruiting students to a school that didn’t even exist,” he said.
Martin said the enrollment numbers for Lanning Square are better for next year, although there was still a way to go. “The recruitment has been easier this year, as they see the building going up,” he said.
One thing that’s different about KIPP’s presence in Camden, is there has been a broader of acceptance of alternative schools, Martin said.
In Newark, charters continue to meet opposition, while “Down here (in Camden), people are upset that we aren’t moving fast enough,” Martin said.