Camden schools' failing grades

"I'm greatly dismayed with the recent QSAC scores," Mayor Dana L. Redd said
"I'm greatly dismayed with the recent QSAC scores," Mayor Dana L. Redd said (ELIZABETH ROBERTSON / Staff Photographer, file)

The district gave itself high marks, up to a perfect 100 pct. State officials saw things very differently, as low as a 7 pct.

Posted: February 12, 2012

Almost a year after the Camden City School District gave itself highly favorable scores in a performance evaluation, the state Department of Education has come back with its own review, and the scores aren't pretty.

In the latest Quality Single Accountability Continuum (QSAC) performance review, the district received failing grades in four of the five categories - instruction and program (7 percent); operations (47 percent); personnel (9 percent); and governance (33 percent).

It received 79 percent in fiscal management, which acting Education Commissioner Chris Cerf said was mostly because the district was checked daily by a state-appointed fiscal monitor.

The Inquirer obtained a copy of the report in advance of its planned release this week.

The scores aroused new concern among city officials.

"I'm greatly dismayed with the recent QSAC scores," Mayor Dana L. Redd said in an interview. In recent weeks, she has been openly critical of the school administration. "The district is in disarray, and we need help."

For several months, officials with the Education Law Center, the advocacy group that has repeatedly sued to increase state funding for poor-performing districts, have said that the state should do more under QSAC to force change in Camden.

"The children have effectively lost a year," David Sciarra, the group's executive director, said last year after a previous evaluation.

Gov. Christie has said he has no intention of taking over Camden's schools but told reporters last month that he would not "relinquish my authority" to do so.

Separately from the QSAC evaluations, the state has set up an accountability system linked to a federal waiver from the No Child Left Behind law. The waiver was granted Thursday after the state proposed various actions, including declaring "priority" status for 23 of Camden's 26 schools. Christie said that would make them eligible for "intensive intervention from the state in the coming year."

On Friday, School Superintendent Bessie LeFra Young, who returned Feb. 1 after a long sick leave, did not return calls for comment. QSAC is a periodic review of districts' performance launched by the state in 2007. The process involves a self-evaluation by the district followed by the state.

Under it, the state has the authority to intervene in problem areas or mount a full takeover if a district scores less than 50 percent in all categories.

But an amendment to QSAC is to be put to a vote at the state Board of Education meeting in March that would allow a full state takeover even if a district failed just the four categories that Camden has while having a fiscal monitor. State officials said a corrective plan for Camden might come in a couple of months after an Education Department team conducts an intense examination of the struggling district's needs.

The QSAC findings come on the heels of a state report that criticized the district for inaccurately reporting incidents of school violence and vandalism; another year of poor standardized test scores; and extended absence of the superintendent, who was out sick for 221 days in the last two years.

"We need to fix this now. . . . I think we need some fresh, new leaders with bold ideas," Redd said, adding that the school board had not done enough to hold the superintendent accountable.

While she has by now appointed most of the board's current eight members, she pointed out that the superintendent was hired by a previous board.

The district did a self-evaluation in 2011 and gave itself a perfect 100 percent in personnel, 98 percent in operations, 78 percent in fiscal management, 67 percent in governance, and 61 percent in instruction and program.

State officials went into the district to do their own QSAC assessment shortly after in the spring and focused on the more than 300 subcategories listed in the QSAC forms.

"This is a total break with reality," board member Ray Lamboy said of the discrepancy between the self-assessment and the state's findings. "What happened here?"

In a letter addressed to Young, Cerf warned that while there were "committed and talented educators" in the district, "Camden's public schools are not serving children at the consistently high levels they deserve."

The widest discrepancy in QSAC scoring was in the personnel category: The district gave itself 100 percent, the state gave it 9 percent.

"Not all staff are appropriately certified for their job assignments," Cerf stated.

Board President Susan Dunbar-Bey said she was particularly surprised by the state's single-digit scores and hoped the district would appeal.

"In instruction [7 percent], that could not possibly be correct. I don't believe it," she said. "A lot of improvements have been made since the last QSAC."

The state gave the district abysmal grades in its first QSAC, in 2007. The administration of Gov. Jon S. Corzine could have taken over the district, but opted not to. The district belatedly submitted a corrective plan in 2009.

Then in 2010, another QSAC review showed little improvement. Camden failed or scored less than 50 percent in three areas, but again there was no state intervention.

"QSAC is not an automatic trigger for interventions," said Justin Barra, spokesman for the Education Department. He said the department evaluated each district "on a case-by-case basis."

Six other South Jersey districts have earned failing scores in key performance areas in their most recent QSAC reviews:

Pennsauken, which in August scored 48 percent in instruction, 46 percent in personnel, and 33 in governance.

Beverly, which in July scored 23 percent in instruction and 23 percent in personnel.

New Hanover, which in July got 46 percent in instruction, 18 percent in fiscal management, 40 percent in personnel, and 11 percent in governance.

Willingboro, which in July received 40 percent in instruction, 17 percent in personnel, and 11 percent in governance.

Florence, which in April received 24 percent in instruction.

Glassboro, which in April scored 24 percent in instruction.


Contact staff writer Claudia Vargas at 856-779-3917, cvargas@phillynews.com,

or @InqCVargas on Twitter.

Inquirer staff writer Matt Katz contributed to this article.

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