Alternative-school links grow on Camden board

Milagros Torres, whose daughter Felicia was bullied at school, now backs alternative schools. RICHARD KAUFFMAN / Staff
Milagros Torres, whose daughter Felicia was bullied at school, now backs alternative schools. RICHARD KAUFFMAN / Staff
Posted: May 21, 2012

Milagros Torres joined a chorus of parents advocating for alternatives to public schools in Camden after her 9-year-old daughter was attacked in March by bullies in a Thomas H. Dudley Elementary School bathroom.

Moneke Ragsdale, however, says it was the Lanning Square School, a traditional, public elementary school, that made sure her son Eric Lee wouldn’t fall behind. Lee, now 19, went on to graduate with honors from Camden High School, just finished his first year at Camden County College, and hopes to go on to medical school.

The Camden City School Board — including two new members sworn in Wednesday and immediately confronted with the task of replacing departing Superintendent Bessie LaFra Young — will have to navigate this kind of divide among parents as it weighs how to improve the learning environment for children in a city beset by poverty, crime, and struggling public schools.

Several so-called Renaissance schools, an alternative to traditional public schools akin to charters, are seeking approval, and their prospects likely improved substantially since at least four of the nine board members have links to alternative schools.

“Charters are coming, and charters will be part of our district. ... We need more collaboration” between charters and the district, said board member Kathryn Ribay, a science teacher at Collingswood High School, who was appointed to the board a year ago. Ribay served on the ad hoc committee to prepare the district’s request for proposals for Renaissance schools that was posted Friday.

Ribay’s husband, Randy Ribay, is a teacher at Boys Latin Charter School in Philadelphia and a founding board member of City Invincible Charter School, scheduled to open in September in Camden.

Several other board members also have connections to either charter schools or Renaissance schools.

Brian E. Turner, a city lawyer who grew up in Camden and graduated from Moorestown Friends School, was on the founding board of Charter School for Global Leadership, which is tentatively scheduled to open in September in Camden. Turner said he resigned from the charter board Wednesday before being sworn in to the city school board.

Board member Felicia Reyes-Morton is a 2006 graduate of Camden Academy Charter School. “They are more of a college preparatory school,” she said, expressing her admiration for charters.

Board member Martha Wilson said she planned to abstain from Renaissance votes as the wife of Assemblyman Gilbert “Whip” Wilson (D., Camden), who cosponsored the state Urban Hope Act that allows nonprofit entities to operate these schools in urban areas such as Camden.

Renaissance schools can receive up to 95 percent of per-pupil tax dollars that go to traditional public schools and may hire private companies, without bids, for a range of services, including staffing, management, and bookkeeping.

Mayor Dana L. Redd, who now has appointed every member of the school board to three-year terms, said that, despite her desire to have public-private partnerships within the Camden School District, she did not pick board members based on their charter or Urban Hope Act affiliations. The appointees had “compelling presentations” and had presented themselves as “committed leaders,” Redd said in an interview Friday.

The board will be in charge of reviewing the Renaissance-school proposals and can possibly approve up to four for 2013-14 openings.

Aside from approving money allocations, board members have no control over what charter schools do in the city, Kathryn Ribay said. Charters are granted by the state, not the city. And though the board has the power to approve Renaissance-school proposals, once those schools are up and running, they also will be out of the board’s control.

A scary thought, some parents say.

“This is basically an experiment,” said Ragsdale, a mother of three graduates of the school district, who has a seventh grader at Lanning Square School. “There’s no factual information this will work.”

She expressed concern that the board might be skewed in favor of Renaissance and charter schools.

“If you sit on the board, you should be for [traditional] public education,” she said, “because that’s what you do.”

She said she was especially concerned about the possibility that instead of a new Lanning Square School that has been promised for a decade, a Renaissance school would be created.

“Parents should have a choice,” she said, adding that, if a Renaissance school replaces Lanning Square, “you are basically forcing them to be in a Renaissance school.”

For some parents, like Torres, that might be a salvation. “For me, it’s not an option anymore,” she said about sending her bullied daughter to traditional public school. Charters and Renaissance schools, she said, “will be the way out.”

After Wednesday’s meeting, newly named board president Kathryn Blackshear said the board might launch the search for a new superintendent as early as Tuesday.

Last Tuesday, the school board voted to approve Young’s buyout, effective June 30. Young, who had a year left in her contract, will receive three months’ salary, or about $62,000, along with an as-yet-undisclosed amount of expense reimbursements.

Young, a former Philadelphia School District administrator, had received heat from the community for her poor attendance record. In her five years as superintendent, Young was absent at least 221 workdays, most of them in the last two years. She said a chronic illness kept her home so many days.

“The new leadership,” Redd said Friday, “has to look at how they rebrand the district.”

Next year, Camden voters will get a say on whether they want the mayor to continue appointing board members or whether to go back to an elected board.

Contact Claudia Vargas at 267-815-1953 or cvargas@phillynews.com, or follow on Twitter @InqCVargas. Read her blog, “Camden Flow,” on www.philly.com.

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