NJEA Challenges Creation of Camden Charter Schools

NJ Spotlight News | April 23, 2015 | Education
The NJEA is challenging Camden's decision to turn five of the city's lowest performing schools into charter schools.

By Briana Vannozzi

The state’s largest teachers union is legally challenging a plan that would transfer five of Camden’s lowest performing schools to charter networks. The NJEA filed a complaint asking the state education commissioner to rescind the plan’s approval.

“It’s been a very aggressive move and it needs to slow down and get all parties concerned about this and revisit what the true spirit of these renaissance schools is,” said NJEA President Wendell Steinhauer.

The union contends Camden’s method of creating renaissance schools is in direct violation of New Jersey’s No Child Left Behind Waiver and the Urban Hope Act. It allows the city to open  up to four renaissance — or hybrid charter schools — in newly constructed or substantially renovated buildings.

“Its gone from ‘we’ll build schools’ to ‘we’re just gonna go in take over the ones we have and we will significantly modify them,’” Steinhauer said.

The city district’s plan calls for all but one school to remain in their original building which would undergo major renovations. Three schools — East Camden Middle School, McGraw and Rafael Cordero Molina Elementary — will be transferred under the control of mastery charter schools. The Henry Bonsall Family School, where the superintendent says only 9 percent of students can read or perform math at grade level, is slated to be transferred to the uncommon charter school network. And a fifth school — J.G. Whittier — will close outright. Students will relocate to a new building also operated by a charter network called Team Academy.

“What we’ve proposed is to dramatically improve five schools sincerely in need and what we’re proposing here is to revitalize those buildings and renovate them and to make sure those students receive a great academic experience and those schools have been struggling for decades and decades,” said Rouhanifard.

Since being appointed superintendent in 2013, Rouhanifard has not hidden his support for creating a mixture of public, charter and renaissance school options within the system.

“Look change is hard, change is complex. We’re not surprised to see anxieties out of the community. NJEA is the state teachers’ union and we respect their decision to file the motion,” said Rouhanifard.

We caught up with him today at one of the many events his administration has held over the last year, rolling out pieces of what they’ve dubbed “the Camden Commitment.” It’s included technology and safety upgrades, community surveys and town halls to improve the failing district. He says saying the word ‘charter’ has a tendency to cause a stir around New Jersey.

When asked if parent Stephanie Wilson has heard a lot about the new renaissance schools she said, “personally, I understand why they’re considering doing it. I wish that they would have tried to work on the public aspect more, but I understand why they’re doing it and I hope it works out for whoever chooses to go that way, but I personally am gonna stick with public school.”

“When there’s change, all of us don’t grasp it right away. I’m a say that,” said parent Patricia Jennings.

For now the district is moving forward with plans for the renaissance schools, though it’s uncertain if any additional legal battles are waiting in the wings

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