Group questions 2 new Camden Renaissance schools

Posted: April 16, 2014

A statewide grassroots education group, frequently and oftentimes fiercely critical of the state's charter school laws, is questioning whether Camden's process of bringing two more Renaissance schools to the city violated state statute.

On Monday, Save Our Schools, founded in 2010, sent a letter to Commissioner David C. Hespe at the Department of Education raising concerns over promotional materials sent home with students last week detailing Mastery and Uncommon Schools. The letter to the commissioner also took issue with the district's application of the Urban Hope Act, which created district-hybrid schools.

The department did not immediately return calls for comment.

Mastery and Uncommon were approved by the state-run district in January and are awaiting a final decision from the state, which received the applications April 7.

Last week, the district announced where the schools would open if approved, and letters were sent home with students explaining how parents could enroll their students in the hybrid schools, along with fliers about informational sessions.

"We have been transparent and fully aligned to the law throughout this process, and we are very excited about the potential for hundreds of Camden students to have access to new, excellent schools and state-of-the-art buildings," said district spokesman Brendan Lowe.

The district says it is giving parents the information as soon as it has it. The letter sent home to parents specifies that enrollment is not mandatory. The critics at Save Our Schools say it's a premature promotion for a privately run school and is confusing to parents.

Parents interested in sending their students to Mastery who fall in its catchment area, made up largely of North Camden, East Camden and Cramer Hill, must apply by May 2, according to the district letter. If Mastery receives more applications than seats available, it will hold a lottery, the letter explains.

The district has stressed that both of the proposed Renaissance schools will only open if the state approves them but has also helped promote the schools, given the quick turnaround should they get the approval.

Last week, the administration announced plans to house students in temporary facilities so both schools, without buildings of their own, could open in the fall.

Mastery is prepared to enroll up to 600 students at two temporary locations - Pyne Poynt Family School, which will not take on a sixth grade class next year, and the former Washington Elementary School on Cambridge Street.

Uncommon would open for 90 to 100 kindergarten students in a to-be-determined temporary facility.

"Beyond the impropriety of Camden acting on behalf of a private entity in this manner, we are very concerned that Camden is moving forward to facilitate the enrollment of Camden public school students in September in 'temporary' schools," said the letter, written by Susan Cauldwell, executive director.

The Urban Hope Act calls for new construction and specific financial and construction plans. It does not mention the use of existing public schools. Pyne Poynt currently only uses about half of its building.

Save Our Schools also took issue in its letter with the district's request for an extension to submit the applications beyond the statutory 10 days after the district's approval. The district requested an extension and in a response letter dated March 7, Assistant Commissioner Evo Popoff granted it, from March 10 to April 7.


jterruso@phillynews.com

856-779-3876 @juliaterruso

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