Camden plan: New schools, one-stop enrollment, better safety

Superintendent Paymon Rouhanifard at the meeting at Octavius V. Catto Elementary School. "We want to move with a sense of urgency here," the state-appointed leader said.
Superintendent Paymon Rouhanifard at the meeting at Octavius V. Catto Elementary School. "We want to move with a sense of urgency here," the state-appointed leader said. (DAVID M WARREN / Staff Photographer)
Posted: January 29, 2014

A long-term plan to improve Camden schools calls for breaking ground on two new schools by 2015 and renovations on six others beginning that year.

The construction and improvements would be funded by the state's Schools Development Authority or through the Urban Hope Act, in which case the schools would be turned into "Renaissance" schools.

The 16-page plan, titled the "Camden Commitment" and presented by state-appointed Superintendent Paymon Rouhanifard on Monday evening, also includes district-wide goals for improving safety, facilities, educational support, and parental engagement.

The plan recommends a downsized central office, and promises a universal enrollment process that would enable parents to apply to charter, Renaissance, or public schools through one system.

"Our strategic plan takes direct aim at fundamental rights we owe our children and families," Rouhanifard said at the presentation. "Every child in Camden has a right to attend a safe school in a modern building."

The plan does not list any schools for closure or takeover, and Rouhanifard said in an interview that those decisions had not been made and would only come after discussions with the community.

The district has received seven applications for Renaissance schools, some of which propose newly constructed buildings and several of which suggest renovating current facilities.

Hope Universal, which operates five schools in Philadelphia, has proposed to take control of and renovate Camden High. The district has said in the coming weeks it will announce applicants who will move on to phase two.

The Urban Hope Act, which gives school boards in Camden, Trenton, and Newark the power to approve up to four of the projects, defines a Renaissance school as "a newly constructed school or group of schools," but state code defines "newly constructed school" as "either a new facility or a significant refurbishment of an existing facility."

David Sciarra, executive director of the Education Law Center and a critic of Renaissance schools, said the statute was not created to allow takeovers of existing schools.

"The statute does not authorize the Camden district to close a district-run school, then sell or lease the building to a private operator simply because the district does not want to seek financing and construction of the facility from the SDA," Sciarra said.

Sciarra questioned why the district was increasing the number of Renaissance schools without seeing how KIPP Cooper Norcross Academy, the only one so far approved statewide, performs. It is slated to open in the fall with 100 kindergartners at a temporary facility.

"SDA has ample funds to do all the projects needed in Camden. Administrators in Camden have to package these projects as quickly as possible, get a long-range plan, and immediately try to move them," he said.

(KIPP Cooper Norcross Academy is backed by charter school giant KIPP, the Norcross Foundation Inc., and the charitable foundation of Cooper University Hospital. The Norcross Foundation was created by the family of State Sen. Donald Norcross (D., Camden) and his brother George E. Norcross III, who is chairman of Cooper University Hospital, a Democratic leader, and a managing partner of the company that owns The Inquirer.)

Rouhanifard acknowledged the SDA's reputation for moving slowly, but said he would push for funding from the agency for the renovation of three schools, including Camden High, which has been on the SDA's list of the top five facilities in most need of repair since 2012.

The SDA has about $4 billion to commit to urban schools, but has not built a new school in four years. Charles McKenna, Gov. Christie's chief counsel, was named in December to replace the agency's previous director.

"We want to move with a sense of urgency here," Rouhanifard said in the interview. "You may know they don't work at the speed of light - but we're confident that with their new leadership, they're going to move more swiftly."

A five-year building and facilities plan will be released in the spring, he said. The district was in the process of creating a facilities plan when it was taken over by the state in August.

Rouhanifard said he wants "all options on the table" in a district where only 25 percent of students who enter kindergarten reach 12th grade and half of the buildings were erected before 1928.

At the Octavius V. Catto Community School, Rouhanifard outlined the plan to about 400 teachers, parents, and other community members, and invited attendees to share dinner and approach him with questions.

Mayor Dana L. Redd, Donald Norcross, members of City Council and the school board, and Camden County Police Chief Scott Thomson sat behind Rouhanifard in the Catto gymnasium.

Rouhanifard was interrupted by applause as he outlined five promises, particularly when he brought up the need for modern facilities.

He prompted some groans when he said that while he recognized concerns over Renaissance and charter takeovers, "we have to get out of the mind-set that the district is one thing and Renaissance and charter schools are something else."

Johanna Rivera, whose son Javier Velez, 6, attends kindergarten at Katz Academy, a charter school, said Rouhanifard "gave [her] hope for the district."

Keith Howell, who has been teaching social studies at Woodrow Wilson High School for 19 years, found the presentation lacking in detail. "It wasn't specific enough," he said. "I don't like the concept of bringing in other schools when we can fix the schools we have here. Give us what we need and see what we can do."

Edith Epps, 57, sat with her two 10-year-old grandchildren, fourth graders at Catto. "He said a lot of things that sound great, but why do we have to wait to implement them?" she asked. "We're tired of promises, we want to see results."

Rouhanifard said the plan for a universal enrollment system where "everyone plays by the same rules" would make parents' lives less complicated and more equitable.

He said he had heard accusations that charters were kicking out underperforming students and that district schools were turning away families within their geographic area.

"Everyone's playing certain games, and we need to make sure there's a consistent set of policies being implemented," he said. He helped create a similar enrollment system in Newark.

The full plan, to be available on the district website Tuesday, also highlights the goal of reaching 100 percent prekindergarten enrollment by 2015-16.


Schools Plan

Security:

A 25 percent increase in the number of students who feel safe at school.

More accurate incident reporting and reducing incidents by 20 percent by the 2015-16 school year.

Update security plans and technology.

Facilities:

Break ground on two new schools and start full renovations on six more, including Camden High School.

Bring wireless and expanded broadband to schools districtwide.

Release a five-year building and facilities plan in the spring.

Student support:

Open a residential school for the most at-risk students by June 2015.

Audit special education services.

Improve English Language Learner and disability services.

Boost college readiness by offering Algebra I to all eighth graders, and provide SAT preparatory classes to every high school student.

Reach 100 percent enrollment in pre-kindergarten by fall 2016. (Currently about 85 percent of families take advantage of free preschool.)

Train five new principals of city schools in three years through the federally funded Camden PLUS program.

Parents:

Create school information cards and a catalog of all district, charter, and Renaissance schools; design a universal application system; open four parent and community centers, and create parents desk at every school.

Source: Superintendent's "Camden Commitment" plan


jterruso@phillynews.com

856-779-3876 @juliaterruso

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