For Camden Schools, Takeover May Not Mean Change

March 25, 2013

During a news conference at Woodrow Wilson High School on Monday, Gov. Chris Christie said the state could begin intervening in the Camden school district in six to eight weeks.

CAMDEN — Gov. Christie came to Camden Monday to announce the state’s takeover of the Camden school district will bring true reform.

But how that change plays out depends on whom you ask.

Critics such as Councilman Brian Coleman and former school board member Dwaine Williams see the city’s public school system shrinking as education becomes more privatized.

“You’ll have a series of mediocre schools — private schools, charter schools and some remaining public schools,” said Williams, who served on the school board for more than nine years.

“People will make money off the Camden school district.”

Coleman said the state takeover fails to address the underlying issues of the city’s poor economy, lack of public safety, dilapidated housing and shriveled tax base. But advocates for educational reform expect to see an increasing array of stronger educational options for parents and students.

Those changes, according to Gloria Bonilla-Santiago, a professor at Rutgers-Camden and the founder of Camden’s LEAP Academy University Charter School, might include the following:

  • New administrative leadership
  • Private schools that accept vouchers
  • An influx of additional charter schools
  • National charter school chains or other educational organizations charged with running persistently failing public schools
  • Approvals of additional Hope Act schools — schools that are similar to charters, but built with financial support from the state

“The first thing that will happen is that new leadership will come in with the executive powers to fire people and clean things up,” said Bonilla-Santiago.

“The district had a broken system. No one in leadership, even with good intentions, could make change. It was a broken system.

“There is no magic wand,” she added. “The district had serious systemic failure. It will take time. Camden is an embarrassment.”

With the state rather than a local school board overseeing applications, LEAP will likely apply for one of three available Hope Act slots, Bonilla-Santiago said.

Derrell Bradford, an advocate for wider school choice options in the state, also sees the Department of Education offering more options in Camden as a means of making the district “more desirable.”

Patricia Bombelyn, a lawyer representing three Camden students who last year sued for immediate access to better schools, said the state’s decision to take over the city schools bodes well for the lawsuit.

But she also has called for either vouchers to private schools or transfer of Camden students to nearby school districts with excess capacity as a means of improving education.

George E. Norcross III, chairman of Camden’s Cooper University Hospital, said new administrative leadership will change the dynamic in the district, aiming for “collective engagement” with stakeholders to make education the priority it deserves to be.

Norcross, a Democratic leader, spearheaded the Cooper/Norcross/Kipp Hope Act school complex that will open in the Lanning Square area in 2014.

He believes a second Hope Act school will likely get approved by the state later this year.

The new schools will provide the same amenities — and educational opportunities — as suburban schools, Norcross argued.

“Today is another step in creating economic development.”

Karen Borelli, a district health and physical education teacher who attends more school board meetings than some of the members, sees opportunity in the state takeover.

But she worries about accountability as the state takes the reins.

“A big part of the problem is the board,” said Borelli, claiming members repeatedly blocked changes suggested by school leaders.

She also believes the teachers union — of which she’s a member — failed to creatively work to make changes and now will have change forced on them, especially if three new Hope Act campuses are approved. That will mean drawing down the district’s student population.

Borelli also worries about political cronyism in district hiring. The district’s superintendent will be hired by the state and answer to Education Commissioner Christopher Cerf, she added, meaning “accountability will be an issue.”