A pledge to help Camden

Businessman Lewis Katz plans to open a charter school at the Boys & Girls Club in Camden's Parkside section. AKIRA SUWA / Staff Photographer
Businessman Lewis Katz plans to open a charter school at the Boys & Girls Club in Camden's Parkside section. AKIRA SUWA / Staff Photographer (Businessman Lewis Katz)

Businessman plans a charter school so kids have a "level playing field."

Posted: March 18, 2012

Camden school board president Susan Dunbar-Bey was thrilled when she received a call a couple of months ago saying millionaire businessman Lewis Katz wanted to talk about helping the district.

Dunbar-Bey was prepared to discuss the Camden High football field renovation and construction of a new Lanning Square Elementary School.

"We figured if he wanted to help us, those were our needs," Dunbar-Bey said Thursday.

But neither item was on Katz's agenda. During the breakfast meeting, Dunbar-Bey, board member Martha Wilson, and deputy superintendent Reuben Mills listened to other ideas, including the Knowledge A to Z, or KATZ, Academy, a charter school Katz plans to operate at the Boys & Girls Club in Parkside. He contributed to building the $6.5 million clubhouse in 2001.

Katz Academy, which plans to open with 135 elementary students, is one of six new charters the state has approved for Camden pending final review. On July 15, state Education Commissioner Christopher Cerf will announce which schools are ready to go based on valid certification of occupancy, number of teachers and staff to be hired, and other criteria.

Since taking office, Gov. Christie has advocated for more school choice, especially in poor cities. He has accelerated charter-school approvals, recently signed the Urban Hope Act, which allows nonprofit companies to operate "renaissance schools," and has been pushing for legislation to authorize corporate-sponsored scholarships for students in failing districts to attend private and parochial schools.

'Wiped away'

Some Camden school officials, including Dunbar-Bey and former school board president Sara Davis, have vehemently opposed the influx of non-district-run schools. The 9-square-mile city is already home to seven charter schools.

"This district is going to be wiped away, and we are not doing or saying anything," Davis said at Wednesday's board meeting.

Mills, who as acting superintendent received copies of all charter applications, sent the state letters of opposition on behalf of the district for at least two: Knowledge A to Z and the Charter School for Global Leadership, according to Department of Education officials. Mills was not available for comment Friday.

At the 2009 Clinton Global Initiative, where world leaders convened to devise solutions for challenging issues, Katz signed a pledge to make a change in Camden by starting a charter school.

Katz, a Camden native and former co-owner of the New Jersey Nets, is also part of a group that has entered into an exclusive agreement to negotiate for the purchase of The Inquirer, Philadelphia Daily News, and Philly.com.

He has a specific vision for the school: In addition to a quality core curriculum, it would teach French, starting in kindergarten. Charter-school teachers would help students with homework during the Boys & Girls Club mandatory homework and tutoring hour before playtime. Dinner would be served from 6 to 7.

Katz wants Camden youth to have a "level playing field."

"I want to bring whatever resources I can bring," he said in a phone interview Friday. "My hope is that I can create some opportunities for these kids."

In addition to the Parkside clubhouse, Katz has teamed with the Camden Charter School Network to develop a second campus in Cramer Hill for Katz Academy. It's a couple of blocks from the East Camden Boys & Girls Club, which is connected to Catto Elementary School; Katz helped fund the construction of both.

Some school district officials have complained that charters are taking much-needed money away from the district. The board predicts $56.5 million of the district's $314 million budget will go to fund charter schools in 2012-13, compared with $43 million this year.

State officials say Camden's traditional public schools are overfunded by more than $50 million.

"Camden currently spends more than $23,000 per student, which is roughly $6,000 more per student than the state average," state Department of Education spokesman Justin Barra said. "We need to start talking about how well the money is being spent to improve student outcomes in Camden, rather than simply how much is being spent."

Although some parents say their children have had success in the district's traditional public schools, many say the system is not working for them. Charter schools, they say, might provide a better education or, at the very least, a better environment.

"I want them to have more discipline, more one-on-one; that's what I envision," Mekeya Hannah, 28, said as she picked up her 6- and 10-year-olds from the Parkside Boys & Girls Club on Wednesday.

Hannah's is one of about 70 families who have applied directly at the Parkside clubhouse for the Katz charter-school lottery, scheduled for Friday. Applications also are being accepted online and through the mail. Fliers have been going out to parents, and a large billboard advertising the school looms above Connie Mac's on Route 130 in Pennsauken near the Camden border.

Economic sense

Construction is under way to create nine classrooms on the second floor of the Parkside Boys & Girls Club out of what used to be an art room and open space.

Leasing the building to the charter school, which will start with 135 students and grow to about 400 in kindergarten through fourth grade, makes economic sense, club executive director Milford Liss said. About 10 charter schools have sought the space.

"To not produce revenue by day makes no sense," Liss said.

The clubhouse is open from 3 to 9 p.m. and has a gym, indoor pool, game room, and library. But the Katz Academy project might expand by filling in the pool to build more classrooms, Katz said.

The Camden school board used to lease the club's second floor for nearly $350,000 a year for an alternative school program that served 75 students. The program was canceled two years ago because of budget cuts.

The club, which has an annual budget of $2 million, has not completed a lease with Katz.

Changing times

As she watched her 5-year-old and 2-year-old daughters play at Farnham Park on Wednesday afternoon, Misty Ingalls spoke of the difference between when she was in the Camden School District in the 1990s and what her daughters will face.

"There are more drugs, more violence. Young girls having babies," Ingalls, 32, of Centerville, said.

Ingalls is looking to move outside Camden in search of better schools and better jobs. But if Camden charters prove to have a good record, she said, she might stay.

On the school board, there is some friction over how the district should handle parents' growing discontent and the state's push for charter schools.

"I don't think charters can compete with what our district schools have," Dunbar-Bey said at Wednesday's board meeting. "We have some good programs."

She and former board president Davis suggested that launching a marketing campaign could help retain students in district-run schools.

But board member Barbara Coscarello, who heads the board's finance committee, said that just like any business, the district was going through change and should adjust accordingly.

"Instead of digging in our heels and saying, 'Stop, stop,' . . . we need to reinvent ourselves," Coscarello said Friday.

Proposed Schools

Camden Community Charter School, K-8,

950 students.

Knowledge A to Z Charter School, K-4,

400 students.

Charter School for Global Leadership, grades 9-12, 600 students.

City Invincible Charter School, K-8,

600 students.

Hope Community Charter School, K-4,

330 students.

Excellence Charter School, details unavailable.

Contact Claudia Vargas

at 856-779-3917, cvargas@phillynews.com,

or follow @InqCVargas on Twitter. Read her blog,

"Camden Flow," on philly.com.

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