When Camden officials this week rolled out a new universal enrollment system for the city’s district and charter schools to start next year, the lessons learned from their state-appointed brethren in Newark were apparent.
While the controversial “One Newark” enrollment system was launched in 2013 with an evening affair in the city’s New Jersey Performing Arts Center, Camden chose for its announcement a drab complex of school trailers that serve as the district’s parent enrollment center.
While Newark’s first year of the program included a complex array of criteria and weights that puzzled and angered many people, Camden officials pledged their “Camden Enrollment” system will be simple and clear, with the only preferences being given to siblings and to those who want to stay in their neighborhood schools.
And while Newark’s state-appointed superintendent still works to gain the support of the local board – even as the enrollment system has been much improved in its second year -- the president of Camden’s board was up at the dais with state-appointed Superintendent Paymon Rouhanifard to announce the new program.
The true test, of course, will come when the new enrollment procedure begins in January and families for the first time will be able to apply to all 36 district and charter schools through a single portal.
While such a notion proved polarizing in Newark and was a big reason for former superintendent Cami Anderson’s exit this summer, the launch of the similar initiative in Camden has so far been without the same rancor.
Few publicly mentioned Newark on Tuesday at Camden’s launch, but it was clear that Camden officials sought to not make the same mistakes.
“We really tried to work with the community on the front end,” said Camden Mayor Dana Redd, when asked specifically what Camden did differently.
“There were definitely detractors, but we continued to invite them in and give them the information that they could research on their own,” she said. “We began to build a community support system that you are now seeing.”
That’s not to downplay the other and varied reasons for the difference in tone, including the contrasting politics in the two cities and the fact that Newark’s schools have been under state control for two decades versus Camden’s two years.
The dire state of Camden schools -- with 23 of 26 district schools among the state’s very lowest performing at last count – also put the Christie administration and Rouhanifard in a stronger position for initiating big changes.
But there were also key tactical decisions, including Rouhanifard’s decision last year to delay instituting the new system last year after he first proposed it. One of the raps against Anderson was that she moved too far, too fast with her plans, without community support.
“Our initial instinct is we need to fix this now, and let’s sprint to the finish line,” Rouhanifard said. “But we then said, ‘Whoa, this is really complicated’ and we’ll need partners in this.”
The challenges remain daunting, and Rouhanifard acknowledged he will surely face pushback amid claims that the new enrollment system is only meant to prop up charter schools and the new hybrid “renaissance schools.”
The district has yet to release the full details of the algorithm it will use to decide a student’s placement, nor what safeguards will be in place to assure charters are adequately serving students with special needs, a common complaint of critics.
Rouhanifard stressed that any family that wants to stay in its neighborhood district school will be given first choice, and there will be no involuntary placements – another point of criticism of the Newark system when it debuted.
And in a first for Camden, he said transportation will be provided students more than two miles from their school, district or charter.
For all the arguments that Camden’s charters will only benefit from such a system, not all were ready to sign on immediately. One that offered early resistance was the Camden Charter School Network, which now includes four schools and whose board was reluctant to let the city take control of enrollment.
“Our parent base has been with us for a number of years, and any type of change is unsettling,” said Joseph Conway, the charter network’s co-founder. “The idea that they had stepped out of Camden city (schools) to be with us and now would have to work with the city, that was a little bit offsetting.”
“But we’re all looking to play on the same level playing field, and those who are already there and have siblings will still have access to our schools,” he said. “We’re just going to have to lift our game, and that will be to the benefit of the kids.”