Camden board to consider Renaissance school proposals

Posted: September 25, 2012

The Camden school board will decide Tuesday night whether to accept the proposals of up to four prospective Renaissance school operators, the first time the city has had a say on alternative schools trying to set up within its borders.

Unlike charter school applications, which are not submitted to school boards, plans for Renaissance schools must be approved locally before they can be forwarded to the state.

The Urban Hope Act, sponsored by State Sen. Donald Norcross (D., Camden) and enacted in January, gave district officials the power to approve up to four Renaissance schools each in Camden, Trenton, and Newark.

Companies will build and operate the schools and receive from each student's home districts up to 95 percent of the amount the district would have spent for that student. The schools may use the money to buy or lease land, and can hire companies for services without public bidding.

Camden is the first district to move forward with the plan. The school board has not said recently how many proposals it would approve.

One application is from the partnership of the Norcross Foundation Inc., a charity created by the family of Donald Norcross and his brother, George E. Norcross III; the charitable foundation of Cooper University Hospital, which George Norcross chairs; and one of the nation’s largest charter-school operators, the Knowledge Is Power Program (KIPP). George Norcross is a managing partner of the company that owns The Inquirer.

Another is from the community-redevelopment organization Universal Cos., founded by music impresario Kenny Gamble, which operates six charter schools in Philadelphia. The group has taken part in developing a public school, a Boys and Girls Club, and recreation areas in East Camden.

A third proposal, for a Benjamin Franklin Academy in North Camden, was submitted by Charter School Management Inc. (CSMI). The company - which runs the largest charter school in Pennsylvania, the Chester Community Charter School - is owned by Republican power broker Vahan Gureghian, a major contributor to Gov. Corbett's campaign.

Chester Community students recently experienced a precipitous drop in standardized-test scores following an inconclusive investigation by the state into possible irregularities involving the school's testing practices.

A fourth applicant is the Camden Center for Youth Development, which operated for more than 20 years as Juvenile Resource Center Inc. It has proposed a school for grades six through 12; the other applications are for kindergarten through grade 12.

Despite controversy created by the KIPP Cooper Norcross Academy's plan to build on the site of the former Lanning Square School, where residents had expected a public school to be erected, its proposal appears most likely to move to the state.

A committee of two assistant Camden school superintendents, the district's fiscal compliance officer, and two school board members has scored each application to assist in making recommendations to the nine-member board.

Among the features analyzed were program structure - such as special education and extended days - and finances.

"We all debated scores and explained our scores," board member Felicia Reyes-Morton, who was on the review committee, said Monday.

KIPP Cooper Norcross scored 71 percent for its program and 77 percent on the finance portion, according to documents obtained by The Inquirer.

Benjamin Franklin scored 45 percent for program and 13 percent on finance.

Universal scored 34 percent on program and 88 percent on finance.

Camden Center for Youth Development scored 28 percent for program and 31 percent in finance.

"Obviously, the one to vote for is the school that scored the highest. But it's a board of nine people, so who knows what will happen," said Reyes-Morton, who conceded that she had concerns about KIPP's lack of detail and planning for students with limited English proficiency.

More than 1,200 Camden School District students - close to 10 percent of the total enrollment - need help learning in English, according to 2010-11 Department of Education data.

Of concern in all the proposals, Reyes-Morton said, were the schools' plans for recruiting and teaching special-education students, who make up 17 percent of the district, according to state data.

Board members could reject all the proposals. But a state evaluation of the city's school system released in August warned the district that it should "continue to support an application for Renaissance schools" or risk a state takeover or intervention.

That kind of pressure is "completely inappropriate," David Sciarra, executive director of the Education Law Center, which advocates for poor school districts, said Monday.

"It's been a tainted process since Day One. Whatever happens [on Tuesday] is a result of the state's improper direction and involvement in the process."

By law, after the Camden school board approves a resolution of support for a prospective Renaissance operator, the nonprofit must seek the approval of the state education commissioner.

Even if they were to reject a proposal, some board members have speculated that the state could overrule them, perhaps through the veto power of state fiscal monitor Michael Azzara, who is assigned to Camden.

On Monday, Azzara said that would not happen.

"No one has asked me to veto a 'no' vote on any of the proposals and I don't intend to," he said. "It's in the board's hands now."


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

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