Urban Hope Act Brings Renaissance Schools to Camden

July 24, 2012

Camden moves closer this week to being the first test of the Urban Hope Act, with formal proposals due soon for the new and sometimes controversial Renaissance Schools.

Pushed by Gov. Chris Christie, the Urban Hope Act was enacted last winter and opened the way for up to 12 Renaissance public schools to be built in three districts: Camden, Newark, and Trenton.

The schools would be built and operated by private nonprofit groups using public money, and while similar to charter schools, they would be operated with the consent of the local district.Pushed by Gov. Chris Christie, the Urban Hope Act was enacted last winter and opened the way for up to 12 Renaissance public schools to be built in three districts: Camden, Newark, and Trenton.

But the Urban Hope Act has drawn its share of debate, with some critics calling it an example of the private sector moving in on public education to the detriment of the communities and students.

Camden, which is home to arguably the state’s lowest-performing schools, has been at the center of this controversy, with Christie announcing the act in the city and some high-profile players poised to make bids for local projects.

Those proposals are due to the local Board of Education by Friday of this week, and all eyes will be on the one from the Cooper Foundation, headed by George Norcross III, the well-known South Jersey Democratic leader.

As chairman of Cooper Health System, Norcross has openly said he would like to take advantage of the new law to finally get a school built in the Lanning Square neighborhood across from the University Hospital.

Yesterday, Cooper University Hospital’s chief of staff, Louis Bezich, said a proposal would be submitted Friday, but he would not provide details as to its location, partners, or scope until it is. Lanning Square has been the foundation’s main focus, he said, but there maybe other sites as well.

“While the former Lanning Square School site is our primary focus, there is the potential for additional sites as part of a comprehensive response,” he said in an email.

The state’s fiscal monitor in the district, Michael Azzara, said he expected maybe three proposals overall, with only a handful of organizations inquiring about the program. He would not name the others besides Cooper.

Azzara detailed that this is only the first step, with the local board making its decision as to whether to sign off on the proposals within the month and then the approved ones sent to the state for final approval.

The local board would only likely move on two sites in this first round, Azzara said, and the board’s president Kathryn Blackshear said it is premature to name what will be approved.

But she said the renaissance schools offer an alternative for the city that should be tried, a good alternative to charter schools that have made major inroads.

“The charters have come in and taken our money without always knowing the community. With these Renaissance schools, we’ll at least have some control.”

Blackshear's comments came at a lightly attended meeting last night on the new law and the decision process, held at the Octavius Catto Community School. Only about 15 people showed up, several of them local or state officials. The public input came from community activists and a small number of outspoken district employees.

Kevin Waters, a Camden high school graduate now working as a counselor in the district, said the project is an example of what he called the continued dismantling of urban districts, part of a national strategy led by conservative politicians like Christie.

He invoked the U.S. Supreme Court’s famous decision ending laws permitting segregation in schools, Brown v. Board of Education.

“Flash forward to 2012, and we are revisiting that concept and moving back to urban schools being lesser education,” he said.

He cited the 11 charter schools in the district and the fact the new Renaissance Schools will draw even greater public money. Under the law, the new schools would receive from the district 95 percent of the per-pupil costs for each student. Charter schools receive 90 percent.

‘When is enough enough?” he said.

As the one project that looks likeliest, the Lanning Square site has drawn most of the questions, too. The now-vacant property that once housed the Lanning Square School is owned by the district and the Schools Development Authority, which initially planned a new district school for the site. But those plans stalled under Christie, and questions abound as to whether it would be sold to Cooper or a development partner for the new Urban Hope Act school.

Azzara said no inquiries have been made to the district as yet, and SDA officials last week said the agency has no immediate plans for selling the property, although it continues to review its plans for “surplus” properties.