Mastery, Uncommon Schools approved for Camden

The New Jersey Department of Education approved applications Wednesday for two new "Renaissance" schools in Camden, a move expected to lead to new school buildings in the Cramer Hill and Whitman Park neighborhoods.

Mastery Charter Schools and Uncommon Schools will join the already approved KIPP Cooper Norcross Academy project.

"We appreciate the opportunity to work with the Camden School District to offer a high-quality education to Camden students," Barbara Martinez, a spokeswoman for Uncommon Schools, said in an e-mail. "Uncommon Schools provides students with a joyous and rigorous school day, and we will employ some of the very same successful techniques in the classroom that we know have put thousands of our students on the path to college in our other schools."

Altogether, the Renaissance schools will have an enrollment cap of nearly 10,000 students in a city of 15,000 students and a district that serves 11,700 (3,500 are enrolled in charter schools), according to Brendan Lowe, a spokesman for the school district.

Initial enrollment will be much lower than the 10,000-student cap, Lowe said.

Mastery will serve about 525 elementary-school-age children in North and East Camden, while Uncommon schools will start next year with 90 kindergarten students and grow its school every year by one grade while it builds a new facility in Whitman Park. KIPP Cooper Norcross will serve about 100 in the fall.

Robert Farmer, president of Camden's teachers' union, has predicted that if the schools meet their enrollment capacity, many existing Camden schools could close. Farmer noted, however, that the new schools would need to prove they could succeed.

The approvals come amid criticism that the process did not provide adequate transparency and that public input was scarce.

"Significant flaws remain in those applications that call into question the legality of the commissioner's decision to approve them," said Julia Sass Rubins, a founding member of Save Our Schools New Jersey, an advocacy group for public schools. "This highlights how things work in Camden and the state's complete lack of accountability to the city's residents."

Renaissance schools have three key distinctions from charter schools, Lowe said. They are neighborhood-specific, rather than drawing students citywide; they require newly constructed facilities; and they work with the school district.

Uncommon Schools seeks to operate up to five schools serving up to 2,260 students. Mastery has long-term plans to open up to six schools, serving 4,654 students.

The Urban Hope Act, which authorized the development of Renaissance schools in Camden, Newark, and Trenton, stipulates that the schools can maintain temporary facilities for only three years.

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