Amid upheaval in district, 2 Camden magnet schools weigh becoming charters

Posted: May 14, 2014

Two magnet high schools in Camden are weighing whether to convert to charter schools.

Creative Arts Morgan Village Academy and MetEast High School say they are looking into the move in an effort to increase their autonomy and better serve students as the district undergoes staff reductions and other major changes.

The principals at both schools already have polled faculty, and say they will now poll parents in order to apply for charter status in October. They need approval from 51 percent of both teachers and parents to move forward, the principals said.

More than 90 percent of the teachers at MetEast favored the conversion, as did nearly 90 percent at Creative Arts.

A teacher at Brimm Medical Arts High School said her school also was considering the move, but principal Herbert Simons said it was a false rumor.

"My school community and I have not pursued and have no plans to pursue a charter conversion. We look forward to working alongside the superintendent and remaining a district public school," Simons said in an e-mail.

Only one public school in the state has attempted to convert to charter, according to Department of Education spokesman Mike Yaple. In October, Avon Avenue Academy in Newark applied to convert, but the department rejected its bid in February, he said.

At MetEast, principal Timothy Jenkins said, "This is something we've thought about before the superintendent and his administration came in. It has nothing to do with anybody else in the district and everything to do with our structural design. We need the flexibility to implement our curriculum in a certain way, we need to be staffed in a certain way."

Many of MetEast's 113 students participate in internship programs along with their classes, but certain positions - such as an internship coordinator - are not district-recognized, Jenkins said.

He said he wants to protect the school from some of the ongoing and coming changes in the district, but was not approached by anyone about the changeover.

"No one can force me to do anything. I initiated. I requested, honestly, to become a school-choice school," he said.

At Creative Arts, a similar process took place. Principal Davida Coe-Brockington said the district, through no fault of its own, has consistently presented financial and operational obstacles to the school, which focuses on the performing arts.

"Within the constraints of the Board of Education and the school district, certain positions we just can't have, and it's a performing arts school. We need an artistic facilitator, someone to oversee all arts," but can't have one, she said.

Fund-raising would also be easier, she said, with a grant writer, who can help secure money for the many out-of-state performance trips students take. The school was without its own sound system until this year, when it was able to secure the funds on the fund-raising website DonorsChoose.

"We have a specific niche that we're trying to uphold and build, and we haven't been able to," Coe-Brockington said.

Both principals said they were looking to independently run the charters, not bring in outside operators.

Coe-Brockington dismissed the recent state closures of two smaller independent start-up charters as an indication the move could be risky. She pointed to the school's academic track record.

"We've outperformed every charter in this district as a public school, so academically we'll just continue to do the things we've been doing and expand," she said.

Karen Borelli, health and physical education teacher at Brimm Medical Arts and the union representative for the school, said Brimm was considering a similar move.

She speculated the interest was influenced by layoffs, expected school closings (though the district has said no schools would close next year), and the additions of charter and "Renaissance" schools.

"They're saying, 'The state's here to change this into a charter district and all the schools that aren't charter will collapse, so might as well beat him to the punch,' " said Borelli, who is running for union president.

Superintendent Paymon Rouhanifard dismissed that scenario. He said the district was aware of Creative Arts and MetEast's interest in converting but had not approached the schools' leaders.

"A lot of folks are going out saying we're trying to charterize the district. We're not. It's absolutely false. We're going to be operating district schools for a very, very long time to come," he said. "There are organic conversations ongoing with two of our schools about the potential to charterize and we made clear to them that's a conversation between them and the state."

Charters are publicly funded but privately run. The actual application to open a charter is due in October. Final decisions wouldn't come out until the middle of the next school year.


jterruso@phillynews.com

856-779-3876 @juliaterruso

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