N.J. gives Camden schools a last chance to shape up

Posted: August 11, 2012

The Camden School District has failed to serve its basic mission of educating students and must make substantial changes or face state intervention, according to an in-depth review released Thursday by the state Department of Education.

New Jersey could take over the district, according to Education Department rules. Instead, it's giving Camden one more chance. The report laid out a series recommendations to the "district in crisis," including embracing the new Renaissance schools concept.

Failure to implement the recommendations within eight months "will leave the state no choice but to more aggressively intervene," the report warned.

The district's "lack of effective instructional practices, the obstacles faced by building administrators in their daily work, and the analysis of student achievement outcomes are stunning and must compel us to act without delay," state Education Commissioner Christopher Cerf stated in a letter to the district that accompanied the report.

No one from the state was present to discuss the findings at a special school board meeting Thursday night. Two department officials spoke only of New Jersey's planned Regional Achievement Centers, which are being created to turn around the state's lowest-performing schools.

The Camden school board will complete a previously begun strategic development plan within two weeks, acting superintendent Reuben Mills said Thursday. It will be blended with the state's recommendations to form a comprehensive plan, he said.

During the presentation about the achievement centers, some board members said they worried about having too many plans floating around and the challenge of coordinating them.

"I'm afraid the ambitions will fall flat," said board member Sean Brown.

Sara Davis echoed Brown's concerns about making changes by the start of school next month.

"Principals don't know their staffs," Davis said. "This is crazy. All this is doing is pushing Camden further and further behind."

The evaluation was triggered by the district's abysmal scores this year in the state performance review known as the Quality Single Accountability Continuum (QSAC).

QSAC, launched in 2007, is based on a self-evaluation by the district and a subsequent review by the state. The state has authority to intervene or mount a takeover if a district scores less than 50 percent proficiency in all but the fiscal-management category, provided the district is under the watch of a fiscal monitor.

The district appealed its initial QSAC report, released in February, in which the state gave it failing grades in four of five categories: instruction and program (7 percent); operations (47 percent); personnel (9 percent); and governance (33 percent). Its score of 79 percent in fiscal management was mostly due to the presence of a state-appointed monitor, the state said at the time.

On May 8, in a letter to then-superintendent Bessie LeFra Young, the state said the district had submitted "sufficient evidence" to raise its scores for instruction and program by just two percentage points (to 9 percent) and personnel by 10 points (to 19 percent).

"Even though it's been looked at over and over again, I still think [QSAC] doesn't count for many of the things we've done," Mills said Thursday.

Based on the in-depth evaluation, which took place in February, "the department would be justified in taking significant action to improve student outcomes in the district," Cerf said in his letter Thursday.

Camden's "unique" circumstances provide the opportunity for the district to "radically transform itself" by hiring a transformative superintendent, Cerf advised.

In addition, the district should recruit new talent through the Urban Hope Act and support charter schools, and should work with the staff at one of the achievement centers, he said.

The district also should undertake a comprehensive overhaul of its personnel practices, and develop a long-term plan for school board development and new member induction.

Under the Urban Hope Act, enacted this year, nonprofit entities may construct Renaissance schools, with the state providing up to 95 percent of per-pupil costs. The schools can hire companies without public bidding for a range of services, including staffing, management, and bookkeeping.

On Thursday, board members were surprised and angry to learn from state education official Michael Azzara, who monitors fiscal matters in the district, that the requests for proposals will be amended and reissued, and that the board may not make initial recommendations on which proposals to accept.

He and Mills will evaluate the proposals and present recommendations on which Renaissance projects the board should choose, Azzara said.

The full board had expected to meet Tuesday to evaluate and rank the proposals.

"To see it [Renaissance proposals] linked in with state accountability report makes me extremely angry at how this is being handled," board member Kathryn Ribay said.

Recommendations resulting from the state's evaluation were compiled by more than two dozen Education Department specialists. The team spent 21/2 weeks sorting through documents and interviewing employees. Its criticisms of the district included not having consistent and effective leadership, and failing to adequately implement improvement plans.

The district's nearly 16,000 students have continued to perform poorly on state standardized tests, and 23 of its 26 schools are on a new priority list of the 75 worst-performing schools in the state.

The priority-school model was established this year under the state's No Child Left Behind waiver. Seven Regional Achievement Centers, one to be in Camden, will work on improving the state's priority schools.

Contact Claudia Vargas at 856-779-3917 or cvargas@phillynews.com, or follow on Twitter @InqCVargas. Read her blog, "Camden Flow," at www.philly.com/camden_flow

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