New partnerships for Camden's 'Renaissance' schools

The operators of Camden's "Renaissance" charter schools said Monday that they had formed community benefit agreements to provide health screenings, adult education classes, legal seminars, and other services to city residents.

The agreements also call for the nonprofit school operators Mastery, Uncommon, and KIPP to give preference to local residents in hiring and contracts, which city and school officials said would strengthen relationships between the schools and their neighborhoods.

"This is something that our residents have asked for," Camden Mayor Dana L. Redd said. "To see this actually happening is exciting."

School Superintendent Paymon Rouhanifard, appointed by Gov. Christie to run the district after the state took over the schools in 2013, said he was "deeply grateful."

"I don't want to present this as a cure-all," Rouhanifard said, "but it's a step in the right direction in addressing the city's needs."

Unlike charter schools, Renaissance schools guarantee seats to every child in a school's neighborhood and must operate in new or renovated buildings. Renaissance schools are publicly funded but privately operated, and have contracts with the district mandating services such as special education.

The 2012 Urban Hope Act allowed for the creation of Renaissance schools. Since then, seven, with a total of about 2,200 students, have opened in Camden. U.S. Rep. Donald Norcross (D., N.J.) supported the Urban Hope Act as a state senator, and his brother, Democratic power broker George E. Norcross III, who heads Cooper University Hospital, has been a key player as well. The state's first Renaissance school, KIPP Cooper Norcross Academy, opened in Camden in 2014.

Under the agreements announced Monday, KIPP will coordinate volunteer projects for the school's Lanning Square and Cooper Plaza neighborhoods, officials said, as well as establishing a resource center to provide residents with access to computers. Mastery will provide cancer screening workshops, and Uncommon will work with community groups to hold neighborhood gatherings. The schools plan to make their gyms available for neighborhood events.

As a number of large companies have announced plans to move to Camden, to qualify for generous tax incentives from the state, some longtime residents have asked why no community benefit agreements ensure that those companies contribute to the city.

Drew Martin, executive director of KIPP in Camden, said Renaissance school operators were eager to identify more ways of serving Camden's families. KIPP is already working on partnerships with the community, he said, and a system is in place to give hiring preference to local residents when possible. Thirty-nine of the school's employees are Camden residents, he said.

"For our kids to achieve, they need a whole lot more than a good lesson plan," Martin said. "We need the support of the whole community."

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