Two companies apply to open 'Renaissance' schools in Camden

Posted: July 05, 2014

Five years from now, the majority of Camden's 14,000 students could be attending "Renaissance" schools - a hybrid of district and charter schools - though district officials dismiss that prospect as theoretical.

Two applications - from Mastery and Uncommon Schools - are awaiting approval from the state. They would join the already approved KIPP Cooper Norcross Academy in opening networks of Renaissance schools in the struggling district.

If the enrollment numbers proposed are hit - which administrators say is highly unlikely - the three schools could be serving 60 percent of the students in Camden.

"It will fundamentally alter the nature of education in the Camden community for generations to come," said David Sciarra, executive director of the Education Law Center and a critic of the publicly funded and privately operated schools.

The proposals for Mastery and Uncommon, if approved, would clear the way for nearly 7,000 students to be enrolled in their schools, gradually, by 2019. Including KIPP Cooper Norcross, which is permitted to enroll up to 2,800 students, that's nearly 10,000 students in a city of 14,000 students and a district that now serves 11,000 of them.

School Superintendent Paymon Rouhanifard said those numbers are theoretical and the process would be looked at year to year. The nine charter schools in Camden for 2014-15, he noted, have far higher enrollment caps than students they actually serve.

"Any potential increase is dependent on facilities, district need, and the performance of each of these schools," he said. "We're going to make sure that growth is aligned to students' needs."

If district schools improve, Rouhanifard said, "the district would work with the state to rethink the growth trajectory."

Still, advocates of traditional public schools are alarmed by the numbers, which have been known since early this year but only recently sparked concern when Mastery and Uncommon filed more detailed applications last month.

Critics say the district has cleared the way for Renaissance schools with help from the city, which has pledged land, and the Legislature, which passed a bill last week that lowers some hurdles for the schools.

"What happened is not about the children," said Julia Sass Rubin, a founding member of Save Our Schools New Jersey, a group which has fought against Renaissance schools. "It is all about market share and greed and abuse of power."

Mastery Schools spokeswoman Sheila Ballen said enrollment numbers could change but the nonprofit has undertaken similar projects before.

"In the last three years in Philadelphia, we opened six schools serving 4,000 students, so we're confident we have the capacity and expertise to do the same in Camden," she said.

Barbara Martinez, a spokeswoman for Uncommon Schools, said the nonprofit had received more than 100 applications for the coming school year thus far.

Mastery and Uncommon each operate more than a dozen charter schools - Mastery in Philadelphia and Uncommon in other East Coast states. New Jersey Education Commissioner David Hespe will consider whether to give their Camden projects final approval.

Renaissance schools are similar to charter schools but operate under the umbrella of the school district, enroll students within a catchment area, and have more flexibility in construction and facility planning. The Urban Hope Act enabled the creation of Renaissance schools in Camden, Newark and Trenton, though only Camden has utilized the law.

The bill was sponsored by Sen. Donald Norcross (D., Camden), whose family's foundation cofounded KIPP Cooper Norcross Academy, the city's only approved Renaissance school, which will open in the fall.

The law has been amended twice, both times due to issues that have come up during the application process.

Last week, following complaints over Mastery and Uncommon's plans to renovate existing facilities, the Legislature quickly passed a bill with language allowing the renovation of existing facilities so long as the first permanent schools built are newly constructed.

The bill OKd the use of temporary facilities for a period of three years while new buildings are being constructed.

"We want to get kids into a good education environment as fast as possible and then quickly, within three years, into a new facility," said Assemblyman Troy Singleton, a sponsor of the bill, which also extended the deadline for organizations to apply for Renaissance projects by a year.

Camden can have up to four Renaissance school projects, which means it will have until January 2016 to secure a fourth and final operator should Mastery and Uncommon be approved.

Sciarra, of the Education Law Center, said even Camden's charter schools would have to brace for competition with the arrival of the larger Renaissance school networks.

In Newark, when more established charter networks came in, some smaller charter schools closed, he said.

Carlos Perez, president of the New Jersey Charter School Association, said competition is a good thing.

"If we get to a point where Renaissance and charter schools are all producing for kids and we have to compete, that's a phenomenal problem for the City of Camden," he said.

Perez said parents typically don't judge schools by "how many seats they are approved for, but by if it's a great school and if there's a culture of learning there."

Camden officials say they are committed to selling Mastery and Uncommon land to build their first schools - Uncommon in Whitman Park, on land the city would acquire, and Mastery in Cramer Hill, on city-owned property.

Uncommon seeks to operate up to five schools serving up to 2,260 students. Mastery has long-term plans to open up to six schools, serving 4,654 students.

Robert Farmer, president of Camden's teachers union, the Camden Education Association, said "a drastic number of schools could close" and there would be more teacher layoffs, if Mastery and Uncommon reach their maximum enrollments.

But he said he believes parents will wait to see how the schools perform.

"They still haven't stood the test of actually opening up and operating in this city and they're going to have to prove themselves," he said.

The city's traditional public schools also need to be strengthened, he said. Twenty-three of the 26 failed state proficiency benchmarks in 2012-13.

"We have got to raise test scores, that's the bottom line," Farmer said. "That's the only way we're going to slow this train down."



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