'Castle on the Hill' to be torn down, new Camden school coming in 2021

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A rendering of the proposed new Camden high school.

Camden High School, the "Castle on the Hill" that has overlooked the city's Parkside neighborhood for a century, will be demolished after the end of this school year, officials said Wednesday, clearing the way for a $133 million replacement.

The plan, authorized by the Schools Development Authority (SDA) at its meeting in Trenton, will include razing the tower that anchors the structure. Preliminary renderings released by the school district include a similar tower as part of the new building.

Gov. Christie, who announced the news in the Camden High gym Wednesday afternoon, said the SDA, which is responsible for construction and renovation projects in the state's poorest districts, made a tough and emotionally wrought decision.

A complete renovation of the structure while preserving the historic tower, a symbol of pride for many graduates of the school, would have been cost-prohibitive, Christie said, and a new building will provide a state-of-the-art environment for future generations.

"No parent, no matter where you are in New Jersey, wants anything different for their children other than for them to reach their fullest God-given potential," Christie said, speaking to about 100 local officials, current and former school board members, and administrators of the state-run district. "Every parent dreams of their child doing better than they've done."

Camden Mayor Dana L. Redd said that the need to build a 21st-century facility outweighed the emotional ties that longtime residents feel toward the building. Camden County Sheriff Gilbert "Whip" Wilson, a 1965 Camden High grad, acknowledged that he had mixed emotions about losing the historic structure, but urged naysayers to look at the big picture.

"All Camden High alumni should be proud of what is taking place here," he said. "It's for our children. It's not about us."

Christie's office closed the event to all but a handful of students and Camden High teachers. The governor did not take questions.

Superintendent Paymon Rouhanifard, appointed by Christie after the state took over the school district in 2013, has met with alumni and said he was holding meetings with faculty, students and community members.

The new building, set to be completed in fall 2021, will also house magnet high schools Brimm Medical Arts and MetEast (now called Camden Big Picture Learning Academy), said district spokesman Brendan Lowe. The schools will function as independent "learning communities" within Camden High and focus on vocational training as well as academics. The completed facility will have room for 1,200 students, about 500 more than the size of the current student body. During construction, students will attend classes elsewhere.

Built in 1916, Camden High has produced graduates that include former Mayor Angelo Errichetti, the famed songwriter Leon Huff, and many professional athletes. But the building has been crumbling for decades: Poor insulation and a faulty boiler mean students are often freezing during winter and sweltering in warm months, and the district has spent millions on repairs and maintenance in recent years.

In 2008, Gov. Jon S. Corzine approved $100 million to renovate the school, but in 2011 it became one of more than 40 projects shelved when Gov. Christie announced a restructuring of the SDA. The project stalled until late 2014, when Christie announced that the school was in line to receive "at least" $50 million of the money it had been promised.

Deputy Superintendent Katrina McCombs, a 1987 Camden High graduate who has worked for the district for 24 years, said it was bittersweet to imagine saying goodbye to the building. As a former captain of the cheerleading team, she spent many happy hours in the Camden High gym. As an educator, she said, she wants her nieces and nephews to have the same opportunities she got from the school.

"It'll be hard for the community to see it go," she said. "But we need to keep the focus on the next generation and what's best for them."

asteele@phillynews.com

856-779-3876 @AESteele