Camden Prep, part of the Uncommon Schools network, first opened on Mt. Ephraim Avenue in 2014 through the Urban Hope Act, which authorized “renaissance schools,” hybrid charter-district neighborhood schools, to open if approved by the school board. Camden Prep replaced the old Bonsall Elementary School, which was labeled one of the five most troubled schools in the worst district in New Jersey.
When Camden Prep first opened, only 4 percent of students tested proficient in English language arts and only 3 percent were proficient in math.
Earlier this week, Camden Prep proudly announced that its students’ PARCC scores — the same children who attended Bonsall — beat the state average for the first time in math, with 52 percent meeting or exceeding the bar for proficiency. And the children came close in English, at 49 percent, just a few points below the state average.
In other words, Camden Prep has closed the achievement gap! This reflects an enrollment where 93 percent of students are eligible for free/reduced lunch, 10.2 percent are classified as eligible for special education, 77 percent are Black, and 20 percent are Hispanic.
There was good news all around because traditional schools improved as well. Superintendent Katrina McCombs reported that district-wide in 2014-2015 only 6.5 percent of students were proficient in English and 4.3 percent in math. This year (when combined with renaissance schools) 18 percent were proficient in English and 13 percent in math. “I’m proud to share our modest — I underscore modest because we have not yet arrived — but significant progress,” McCombs said, adding, “the achievement gap definitely still exists.”
Camden Prep’s principal Natalie Cooper explained the sharp rise in student achievement this way:
Cooper said that teachers at Uncommon Schools Camden Prep are constantly evaluating how their students learn material through looking at everything from classroom assignments, to homework assignments, to quizzes and tests.
“It’s just making sure that every child is really, truly learning and there are dozens of ways that teachers can do that on a daily basis,” Cooper said.
Cooper added that there is an emphasis on differentiated learning, where teachers will split students into small groups to provide them with different paths of instruction based on their grasp of the material.Natalie Cooper, principal of Uncommon Schools’ Camden Prep Mt. Epharim Elementary School, credited the school’s success at turning around its students scores…to “great teaching, great teaching, great teaching.”
While Camden Education Association president Keith Benson continues to disparage renaissance schools, Superintendent McCombs applauds the collaborative relationship, valuing student growth over market share.
“By partnering with schools across the city to empower families to choose the best school for their child for a fair and unified enrollment system, we have allowed more students to secure seats in the school they believe will offer them the best education,” said McCombs. “All these changes have resulted in more Camden students reading and doing math as well as, or better than, their peers across the state.” She says “I don’t care what you call a good school so long as it’s a good school.”