The sense of unease among Camden residents and teachers over the recent announcement of a state takeover of the local school system was almost palpable yesterday, at a public forum hosted by NJ Spotlight. Many voiced suspicion and dismay that their city faces a future with more charters than public schools, leaving only those with the greatest needs or fewest options in neighborhood schools.
Nevertheless, almost all of the nearly 200 attendees agreed that the city's public schools are in a bad way, with money wasted on technology that is never implemented, and what they termed a recent no-show superintendent and a general lack of leadership in the district.
Cooper Health System chairman and South Jersey Democratic leader George Norcross took many of the arrows as he explained his support for the state takeover and his plans to create the first of Camden's five planned "renaissance schools." His participation on the panel provided a rare opportunity for the public to address him directly on educational matters.
Norcross told the audience that the city’s schools have been troubled for 40 years and that what was needed was leadership, rather than talk.
“Now, you have a governor who is committed,” said the Democratic leader of Republican Chris Christie. “I’m not sure past governors who’ve taken over schools have shown this commitment. There are too many people who want to talk . . . about failures. [Now] you have a Legislature and leaders who are putting their money where their mouth is.”
Still, it's easy to see what has some Camden residents so put out.
The city is now home to more than a dozen recent charters. Unlike their public counterparts, charters can return troublesome or failing students to neighborhood schools, leaving some critics to complain that they cherry-pick the best kids. Another criticism of charters is that they create very few jobs in the community.
Plans for the aforementioned renaissance Schools also has some residents worried, since they see them as yet another outside intrusion.
The timing of administration's announcement of the imminent takeover also left some members of the public and the educational community feeling a bit bruised, since it came just as the local board was choosing a candidate for the post of superintendent of schools.
Though statistics point to disappointing results from pre-Christie district takeovers in Jersey City, Newark, and Paterson, Norcross argued that the governor's plan to replace top Camden school personnel, fill the vacant superintendent spot with his own appointee, and relegate the local school board to an advisory role would serve struggling students better than the status quo.
Advocates of the takeover noted that a state-designated monitor has held veto power over Camden school-board votes for the past three years -- but only veto power, not the power to implement change. And almost everyone agreed that state-run teacher training facilities, called Regional Achievement Centers, seemed to be helping.
But Kathryn Ribay, a school-board member who resigned after learning about the intervention, said the same problems existed before and after the arrival of the state monitor, particularly a troubling lack of oversight over resource allocation.
“There’s a big difference between how much money is being allocated and how much is being spent,” she said from the dais.
“And yet, everything we do has been signed off on by a state monitor. This is politics getting involved in education,” she said to rousing applause. Ribay, a former Teach for America Camden school teacher, called the state takeover a political and “showy” way to try to fix the problem.
Norcross touted his vision for the KIPP Cooper School as providing healthcare, early intervention services, and testing, along with before- and after-school programs for all K-8 students in its catchment area -- not just those who win a lottery or can meet certain educational requirements.
He also challenged the audience, saying “Is it the be and end-all answer, of course not. But it’s time to act.”
Christie created provisions for renaissance schools when he signed the Urban Hope Act last year, which permits these schools to be located in Camden, Trenton, and Newark. Like charter schools, they’re run by a private entity and funded almost entirely by local school boards. But unlike charter schools, renaissance schools have to accept all interested students from their geographic catchment area. In a city where less than half of high-schoolers graduate and charter schools maintain a waiting list 3,000 names long, Norcross insisted that children deserve change now, not later.
“This district has had a strategy of hope. Hope is not a strategy,” he said.
Despite divisions among panelists over nonlocal control of schools (Norcross’ KIPP Academy and the four remaining renaissance schools will be operated by Newark-based TEAM Schools), most agreed on the broad principles that could establish a blueprint for improvement. What they couldn’t agree on was how to implement or prioritize them.
“Leadership matters,” said Gloria Bonilla-Santiago, overseer and board chair of LEAP Academy University Charter School in downtown Camden. Many of her fellow panelists also blamed poor leadership for many of the system’s failures and assigned primary importance to attracting a superintendent and central administrators who will act with accountability and transparency. But while some favored an authoritative leadership style, others called for more community engagement or more power placed in the hands of teachers.
And in a statement indicative of the complexity involved in turning around a school system so challenged by poverty and low achievement, Camden middle school teacher Karen Douglass-Collins observed, “There are too many goals we’re trying to accomplish. We should set two instead of eight or ten.”
Tara Nurin is a freelance journalist based on the Camden waterfront.