Camden's plan looks familiar

New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie poses for a photograph with twins, Pat Robinson, left, of Pequannock, N.J., and Corrine Gleason, of Franklin, Tenn., Wednesday, July, 25, 2012, in Ocean City, N.J., as he continued his tax-cut tour through New Jersey. The governor wants Democrats to commit to funding a 10 percent tax cut in January. Democrats say they want to be sure New Jersey has the money first. (AP Photo/Mel Evans)
New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie poses for a photograph with twins, Pat Robinson, left, of Pequannock, N.J., and Corrine Gleason, of Franklin, Tenn., Wednesday, July, 25, 2012, in Ocean City, N.J., as he continued his tax-cut tour through New Jersey. The governor wants Democrats to commit to funding a 10 percent tax cut in January. Democrats say they want to be sure New Jersey has the money first. (AP Photo/Mel Evans)
Posted: August 01, 2012

The Camden School District appears to be headed down a trail being blazed by New Orleans, which could lead to an all-charter school system.

New Orleans isn't quite there yet, but with 80 percent of its students now attending charters, that city seems well on its way to pushing traditional public schools into oblivion.

The change was born out of necessity. Bad schools in New Orleans became terrible schools after Hurricane Katrina, and the move to charters has produced results that are being praised.

A Stanford University study found half of New Orleans' charters were getting better academic results than the city's traditional public schools, while about half of the rest were doing no better, and the rest of the charters weren't doing as well as regular schools.

Meanwhile, in New Jersey, New Orleans may not have been the inspiration for last week's announcement that five new charters that qualify as "Renaissance schools" would be built in Camden's Lanning Square community, but it could have been.

The ambitious venture was proposed by the Cooper Foundation and the Knowledge is Power Program (KIPP) charter-school network. The nonprofit partnership was one of three applicants seeking to operate a Renaissance school. Applications approved by the Camden school board must also get state approval.

Gov. Christie's education agenda includes Renaissance schools, which are charters that not only receive public dollars for instruction, but also for construction. Five schools would open in the state over a five-year pilot period under the Urban Hope Act.

The proposed school would be called the KIPP Cooper Norcross Academy. (Cooper Health System Chairman George E. Norcross III is also a co-owner of The Inquirer.) It would count as one school under state law — even though it would consist of two elementaries, two middle schools, and a high school — because all five schools would be on one campus, where more than 2,800 students would be educated.

The academy would more than fulfill the state's promise a decade ago to build a new Lanning Square Elementary School. The project was halted two years ago, leaving students in a crumbling school built in the 1800s. It was later closed when concrete began falling.

Instead of the local school board, the Renaissance schools would be run by a nonprofit management company. The schools would have longer school days and an extended school year, giving poorly performing students much-needed additional instructional time.

Doctors and nurses from Cooper Hospital, as well as students from its new medical school, will be encouraged to serve as mentors. Officials must make sure the Renaissance schools don't become an exclusive haven for the children of Cooper employees. If anyone gets priority, it should be the neighborhood children who have been waiting for a new school for a decade.

Critics rightly fear the move to more charter schools nationally is aimed at abandoning urban schools without fixing them. That can't be allowed to happen. Children who for whatever reason stay in regular public schools deserve a good education, too. Any instructional reforms needed for that to happen should be made, along with giving students other options.

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