In a vacant Camden school, new possibilties

Camden's J.G. Whittier school, which was shuttered, will reopen next year as a KIPP charter-public Renaissance school.

It has been almost a year since the last students walked out the doors of Camden's John G. Whittier Family School, but faded decorations and paper flowers are still taped on the walls, with desks collecting dust in classrooms. In the building's vast multipurpose room, a stage with curtains faces an empty room.

Jose Pacheco, director of facilities for KIPP Schools, sees endless possibilities in the dingy linoleum hallways and dark corners of the three-story brick building, which the Camden school district shuttered last year due to mounting maintenance issues. The multipurpose room, he said, could host assemblies, performances, science fairs, even community meetings.

Built in 1910 as one of the city's two schools for African American children in a then-segregated district, Whittier by next year will reopen under the nonprofit KIPP as a public-charter "Renaissance" school, meaning it will serve all children in its Bergen Square neighborhood. KIPP officials are in the final stages of completing due diligence testing on the site.

"The building has a lot of history," Pacheco said during a recent walk-through. "We like to look at these neighborhood buildings and try to bring that back to life."

Whittier was an all-black school until 1954, when the Supreme Court called for integration of the country's schools. Over the decades it produced doctors, professors, government officials, and a judge.

"If you rate schools from zero to 10, I would have rated it a 20," renowned Camden doctor Charles Brimm told the Inquirer in 1988. At the time, the school served 380 students. "I'll love it till I die."

As Camden's population shrank and jobs left the city, Whittier fell into disrepair. After the main entrance was closed, an empty classroom became the front office. The building had one working bathroom for students when it closed - something Pacheco said KIPP would rectify. He also said KIPP will expand the gym, now located in a small building with room for only a half-sized basketball court. He is looking into how to use nearby empty lots for green space, he said. There are few parks in the neighborhood, he said. 

"We want to make sure that whatever is here, that everyone in the community knows they can use them," he said. "This will be their school."

Leaders of the state-run school district have said KIPP can quickly funnel funds to a school that the state neglected for decades, failing to pay for repairs even as ceilings sagged and deep cracks in the stairs made the main entrance unusable. Unlike charter schools, Renaissance schools guarantee seats to every child in the school's neighborhood, and must operate in new or renovated buildings. Though privately operated, Renaissance schools are publicly funded, and have contracts with the district mandating services like special education.

Since Renaissance schools were approved under the Urban Hope Act, seven have opened in Camden. About 2,200 students attend, with an additional 4,000 attending charter schools and just under 10,000 students remaining in traditional public schools.

When it closed, most of Whittier's 238 students in pre-K through eighth grade moved into the KIPP Cooper Norcross Academy in Lanning Square, which opened last year. Whittier currently operates as a traditional public school located within KIPP, serving grades two through four.

Some residents have accused Superintendent Paymon Rouhanifard of advocating for Renaissance schools over traditional public schools. Rouhanifard says Renaissance schools can fix the district's crumbling buildings faster, because school operators can secure construction work without a public bidding process. The KIPP school's gleaming building in Lanning Square was built in under two years, after residents of that neighborhood lobbied the state for a new school for more than a decade.

District officials said many residents of Bergen Square say they are happy that Whittier will be reborn. The Lanning Square KIPP is near capacity, and some residents welcome the chance to return their kids to a school within walking distance, said Ranjana Reddy, director of special projects for KIPP.

"Quite a few Whittier families live close to the school," she said. "They told us they hate seeing the building empty."

Natasha Hatcher, a Camden native and former Whittier teacher whose son went to Whittier last year, said she was not opposed to Renaissance schools, but feels they have been promoted at the expense of Camden's traditional public schools.

"I guess I'd say I'm against the way it's been shoved down our throats," she said. "If you have a new building like KIPP, of course many parents will be happy to send their kids there. And that's their choice. But I just believe the schools should all be on the same playing field."

Hatcher, now a seventh grade teacher at U.S. Wiggins College Preparatory Lab Family School, enrolled her second-grade son at Yorkship Family School over KIPP. She is happy with the decision, she said, and has no plans to transfer him back to the Whittier location.

"It's frustrating at times as a parent to look at what's happening and to feel you don't have a say in it," she said. "But at the same time, I do believe it's beneficial to have a school in that area. It is a positive thing that parents can walk their children to school there. It is for the betterment of the community."

asteele@phillynews.com

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