Seven firms seek to run schools in Camden

Posted: January 13, 2014

CAMDEN Seven organizations applied to open "renaissance schools" in Camden last week, including one seeking to operate Camden High School along with two city elementary schools.

State-appointed Superintendent Paymon Rouhanifard and members of his administration will now review the stacks of paper filed away on the seventh floor of the administration building to determine whether any will be approved.

In December, Rouhanifard put out a request for proposals for renaissance schools, public-private, charter-like schools created under the Urban Hope Act.

The law, sponsored by State Sen. Donald Norcross (D., Camden), allows a school board to approve up to four schools whose private sponsors would get up to 95 percent of the amount spent on students in public schools in the district to operate the institutions.

The act applies to districts in Newark, Camden, and Trenton. So far, Camden is the only city to have approved a school - the KIPP Cooper Norcross Academy, slated to open in fall 2014 with 100 kindergartners in a temporary facility. The school is affiliated with the family of George E. Norcross III, an owner of The Inquirer. Last year, the school board received a total of five applications and denied the other four, including the Camden Center for Youth Development and Universal Cos., which each reapplied this year.

The five other applicants this year are the Philadelphia charter management company Mastery, the Camden Charter School Network, and LEAP Academy, each with three schools in the city; SEED, and Uncommon Schools, both national charter management companies.

If the district approves any of the applications, it will present them to the community for feedback before helping with a final draft to send to the state for final approval.

Finalists will be notified in mid-February.

Universal Cos. has one of the most specific and likely controversial proposals. The Philadelphia nonprofit founded by musician Kenny Gamble wants to operate Camden High School beginning in 2014 and Cooper B. Hatch Family School and Forrest Hill Elementary School starting in 2015 and 2016, respectively. All three schools were among the 23 out of 26 the state categorized as failing in 2012. Camden High School also made the state's list of five schools in most need of facility improvements that year.

Universal operates eight schools in Philadelphia and two in Milwaukee. At all but one, it assumed management of preexisting schools.

"We're very optimistic this year," company spokesman Devon Allen said. "We look forward to being a part of the solution to the education crisis, as we have been in Philadelphia."

Some of the other proposals:

Mastery, a well-established charter system in Philadelphia operating 15 schools serving 9,600 students, looks to open or turn around up to three elementary schools serving 1,800 students beginning in the fall.

"We have a proven track record of turning around struggling schools in Philadelphia and look forward for the opportunity to partner with Camden's families," CEO Scott Gordon said.

Camden Charter School Network, which runs four schools in the city enrolling 1,400 students, wants to add an elementary school this year and grow annually. It would build a school at an estimated cost of $6 million on land it owns in Cramer Hill or Rosedale.

LEAP Academy Charter, which operates three schools on Cooper Street in Camden, proposed a renaissance K-12 school in Cramer Hill that would eventually serve 1,405 students, beginning with 600 elementary-age students in the 2015-16 school year.  

SEED, a charter management company with schools in Washington and Maryland, proposed opening a boarding high school serving up to 600 and no fewer than 400 students and an extended-day and -year elementary school for up to 700 students.

Uncommon Schools runs 38 schools serving 10,000 children in cities including Boston, New York, and Newark, N.J. It looks to operate five K-12 schools, two middle schools, and a high school by 2019 in preexisting district facilities.

Camden Center for Youth Development, which has run alternative-education programs in Camden for 33 years and which operated a school for the handicapped until 2009, proposed a high school to eventually serve 800 students.

The center's Camden SMART Preparatory School would be open to any student in Camden, not just those in its districted zones.

"I'm hopeful for us and I'm hopeful for the children we've worked with," executive director Felix James said. "From here, all you can do is hope for a fair process."

Editor's Note: This story was changed to correct the number of schools Mastery operates in Philadelphia.

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