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Camden City Public Schools has proposed a plan designed by Superintendent Katrina McCombs and the school board that will close four schools –Sharp Elementary, Wiggins College Preparatory Lab School, Cramer Elementary, and Yorkship Elementary—in order to accommodate decreasing enrollment and a recurring $40 million deficit, Currently the district’s 19 school buildings are at only 70% capacity and the four designated for closure are all very old (three are over 100 years old) and badly in need of repair. Students who attend those schools will have the options to enroll in a neighborhood public charter or renaissance school (hybrid district/charter schools) or be transported by bus to another district school.
From the strategic plan:
A commitment to long-term comprehensive school planning creates the possibility of dramatic transformation of the school district specifically and the educational landscape of the city more generally. This transformation will necessarily afford additional resources to students and families to support their education – even if that means using fewer school buildings across the city. Long-term school planning is Camden City School District’s opportunity to focus on improving the traditional District schools and unifying educational options across the city so that no matter what choice a parent makes in Camden City their child will experience a high-quality education.
Camden City Public Schools District enrollment has declined by nearly 60% from 2013, from 15,161 students to 6,347 students. Currently the city’s eight public charter schools enroll 4,188 students; its twelve renaissance schools (hybrid district/charter) enroll 5,449 students. The most recent DOE data shows that total spending per student is $28,219 ( compared to a statewide average of $21,866), placing it 96th among 98 districts with similar socio-economic factors. The annual costs of maintaining facilities comes to $3,279 per student, which is more than any other similar district. The costs of salaries and benefits for staff who maintain facilities is also higher than other comparable districts. In addition, 19 buildings for 6,000 students is a real outlier: for comparisons, Atlantic City has 7,000 students in 11 buildings, West Orange has 6,600 students in 12 buildings, Sayreville has 6,000 students in 7 schools, and North Brunswick has 6,000 students in 6 schools.
School closures are always difficult. McCombs: “This is a painful, painful process for our community [but] these closures will help us get to a place of better fiscal sustainability.” She noted that the closures came about only after consulting over 500 parents and community leaders, plus surveying 750 residents, and the plan follows Camden’s mission of “putting students first.” Camden Mayor Frank Moran says that taxpayers can’t close the deficit on their own (currently about 95% of school costs come from the state and federal governments) and the State Department of Education can’t ease the shortfall or repair the crumbling school buildings. “Our students deserve a better learning environment,” he said.
New Jersey grades school district function through a rubric called Quality Single Accountability Continuum (QSAC). In order for Camden to regain local control, it must pass the five parts of QSAC: Instruction & Program, Fiscal, Governance, Operations, and Personnel. Currently Camden is failing Instruction & Program (student academic growth and proficiency) and Fiscal (whether a district is maintaining proper records and remaining solvent). Janellen Duffy, senior adviser to JerseyCAN, notes that by “consolidating buildings, the district will limit the amount of funding that is diverted to operational costs and optimize its per-pupil dollars to improve instruction and program.” In other words, consolidation is a path to local control.
Since the advent of renaissance schools, made possible through a bipartisan bill called the Urban Hope Act, student achievement has increased throughout the district. A study issued by Stanford University’s Center for Research on Education Outcomes in June 2019 found that Camden students are showing “significant improvements in math proficiency… as well as other gains relative to the state average for certain demographics.” Those improvements are present in charter, renaissance, and district schools.
The researchers note that Camden Black and Hispanic students who attend charter schools “post significantly stronger growth in reading and similar gains in math compared to district students of the same race.” Also, “Camden black and Hispanic students in renaissance schools outperform district peers of the same race in both subjects.” Nonetheless, all Camden public school students — charter, traditional, renaissance — are demonstrating year-to-year academic growth.
The plan is fiercely opposed by the Camden Education Association, led by president Keith Benson. More to come.