Camden School Choice Advocates and Detractors

At last night’s NJ Spotlight Roundtable entitled “Camden Schools and the Future of Urban Education in New Jersey, Camden School Board Member Sean Brown (a last-minute replacement for Asst. Superintendent Patricia Kenny) related this story to a large and boisterous audience at the Camden-Rutgers Campus Center.

In August 2011, Mr. Brown paid an unannounced visit to the Camden Public Schools’ Central Office, about two weeks before school started. In a back room he discovered “at least a hundred boxes of smart boards.” Smart boards are interactive white boards, popular in classrooms, that retail for about $5,000. Disturbed by the sight, he took a picture and texted it to then-Superintendent Bessie LeFra Young and his fellow school board members.

The response? He was reprimanded for paying the unexpected visit and told that Security and Maintenance shouldn’t have let him in.

The following week he repeated his visit. With school due to start in one week, the smart boards were still in their original boxes.  As an aside, he remarked, “as a board member, I’m lied to all the time.”

Here’s a few other highlights from the Roundtable, where panelists included George Norcross, NJEA’s Pam Garwood, Camden math leader Karen Douglass-Collins (of Pyne Poynt Middle School); LEAP Academy University Charter School head Gloria Bonilla-Santiago; Camden parent advocate Moneke Ragsdale; TEAM Charter Schools Founder and Director Ryan Hill (who runs the highly-regarded KIPP network in Newark); and Kathryn Ribay, the former Camden School Board member who resigned when the NJ DOE announced  a state-takeover of Camden Public Schools. You can watch the podcast by following the link here.

Moderator John Mooney remarked that he had invited a representative from the State DOE “repeatedly” and “they conspicuously said ‘no thanks.’”

On the reaction to the DOE’s takeover announcement:
no surprise, according to Brown, and only surprising in its timing: the Board was in the final stages of a superintendent search. (See my view on this here.) Ms. Ribay, former board member, was “really sad.” The stakes are very high, she said, and this was an “easy and showy way” to address the problem,” merely an example of “politics getting involved in education.”

George Norcross added that he “blamed the administration” and the “leadership,” particularly the Board for condoning the continued employment of an absentee superintendent. (Bessie LeFra Young  was absent for 186 days over  18 months. The Board fired her last year.) Moneke Ragsdale said “I was shocked” but not really because the problem is in the classrooms, where there are no resources. (See Sean Brown’s anecdote.)

Cost per pupil in Camden: generally accepted among panelists as $24K per kid per year, although Bonilla-Santiago noted that if you included federal aid the cost is closer to $30K. (She added that her charter school receives only $15K.)

Does the leadership matter? To KIPP’s Ryan Hill, whose charter organization will be running a group of five charter schools in Camden under the auspices of the Urban Hope Act, a bold and smart superintendent is essential: the “key to making it work” is “having the right superintendent in place.” George Norcross said “if the Cherry Hill Public Schools were in this condition, all leadership would have been fired.” Teacher Douglass-Collins disagreed: “we need leaders in the classrooms and the buildings” and that matters “more than the superintendent.”

Process: Camden’s remaining school board members have until April 15th to file an “order to show cause,” which allows them to negotiate the terms of the takeover. The Board will become advisory, with 12 members.

Professional Development for teachers: inadequate in Camden, agree all panelists, although there’s much praise for the new Regional Achievement Center, run by the NJ DOE for NJ’s lowest-achieving schools.

Future of school choice in Camden: here it gets rowdy. Audience members shout out comments to non-Camden panelists like, “you’re an outsider!” and “you’re a disgrace!” Sean Brown and Ryan Hill speak eloquently about the fact that, as Hill put it, “only poor people in America don’t have school choice,” i.e., others can move to better districts. Lots of grumbling when it’s pointed out that currently 30% of Camden kids already attend charter schools, and insistence that charters aren’t “public schools.”

What do you think?

2 Comments

  1. Pingback: Lessons Learned From Camden As All Schools Rise. - NJ Left Behind

  2. “Only poor people in America don’t have school choice.”

    Sad corollary: “Only poor people in America are disenfranchised in their own communities.”

    George Norcross said “if the Cherry Hill Public Schools were in this condition, all leadership would have been fired.”

    By whom, George?

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