Camden approves 2 more privately run public schools

Posted: April 06, 2014

Two more Renaissance schools enrolling up to 700 students will open in the fall in addition to the one previously approved, the Camden School District said Friday.

Mastery and Uncommon Schools will use temporary facilities beginning in the 2014-15 school year while constructing buildings, the district's state-appointed superintendent, Paymon Rouhanifard, said Friday.

Neither operator has received state Department of Education approval, as required by law, to operate the district-charter hybrid schools, and plans for permanent facilities are vague, but the district made the announcement anyway to allow the operators to get a jump on enrollment, spokesman Brendan Lowe said. The two applications will be submitted to the state Monday, when they will become public.

"It's a way to support these schools . . . to begin getting the word out, making sure they have students for the fall," Lowe said.

The plans come in a series of changes released just two days after the district said it would lay off up to 400 employees, including as many as 250 teachers, to bridge one of the largest budget gaps in city history.

Uncommon Schools, which operates several charter schools in Newark, New York, Boston, and Rochester, plans to open an elementary school at a temporary location yet to be determined, Lowe said. The school will enroll 90 to 100 kindergartners in the fall. A permanent facility is planned for the city's Whitman Park neighborhood, Lowe said. The location has not been finalized.

Mastery, which operates 15 schools in Philadelphia, will begin building a K-12 school in Cramer Hill - the exact location also undetermined. Beginning in the fall, Mastery is prepared to enroll up to 600 students at two temporary locations.

"Mastery Charter Schools is honored to be officially announced as a Camden partner," executive director Scott Gordon said in a news release. "Today marks a wonderful new chapter for Camden, and we are excited to be part of it. We will partner with Camden's families and community leaders to create real opportunities for all children."

Up to 220 K-2 students will attend school at the former Washington Elementary School on Cambridge Street, which currently houses one of the district's Camelot programs. At that location, Camelot, a transitional-education program, serves students in grades six through 12, many of whom are older than the typical grade-level age.

The 90 students served by the Camelot program, which is also offered at Camden High and Woodrow Wilson, will be relocated, Lowe said.

Up to 380 students in kindergarten through grade five could attend Mastery's second temporary facility, at Pyne Poynt Family School, now a sixth- through eighth-grade middle school, which currently uses only about half its building. Mastery and Pyne Poynt will share the building next year, but Pyne Poynt could be phased out.

The school will not take in a new sixth-grade class in the fall, Lowe said. He cited a special-education audit released in February that found sixth-grade students in special education and ESL programs were offered no access to general education. The district will launch a special-education task force to address similar issues districtwide, Lowe said.

At a midday meeting with Pyne Poynt teachers, administrators, atnd staff, the district said no teacher teaching sixth grade exclusively would remain in that position next year.

Robert Farmer, acting president of the Camden Education Association, said at a budget hearing Wednesday his greatest concern was the ultimate closure of traditional public schools.

"Enrollment dictates where our members are headed, and if these schools stay open, the number of jobs lost will go down," Farmer said. "We budget on the number of pupils, and that's the long-term problem here."

Since he was appointed by the state in August, Rouhanifard has made no secret of his intent to bring more Renaissance schools to the district. His "Camden Commitment Plan" called for two more such schools to open in the city. David Sciarra, executive director of the Education Law Center and a frequent critic of the Urban Hope Act, which allows for four Renaissance schools in Camden, Trenton, and Newark, called the most recent news rushed and potentially illegal.

"The application doesn't allow for temporary Renaissance schools operating in a temporary facility without a definitive plan of where the building is going and a finance plan," Sciarra said. "The law is for a newly constructed school. That's the only thing it permits."

KIPP Cooper Norcross, approved last year, also is slated to open in the fall with 100 kindergartners in a temporary facility. The building, going up in Lanning Square, broke ground last month.

In the last 10 years, district enrollment has declined by 1,000 as many have left for charter schools or gone out of district.

KIPP, Uncommon, and Mastery are all included in the $72 million the district budgeted in transfer funds for charter and Renaissance schools in the 2014-15 school year, a $17 million increase from this year.

One in four of the Camden district's 15,000 students


attend charter schools.


jterruso@phillynews.com

856-779-3876

@juliaterruso

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