What's Going on in Camden?

What to make of the debacle in Camden last week when the School Board there, considering four proposals to build new schools, declined to approve any of them?  While three of the proposals were  lackluster, the proposal from KIPP offered options for the kids that are utterly lacking now. (See coverage here from NJ Spotlight, Philadelphia Inquirer, and me, plus this excellent Courier Post editorial.)

No one seems to know exactly what’s going on there. Mayor Dana L. Redd, a big booster of the Urban Hope Act (under whose auspices the new schools would be built), hand-selected all the Board members. Word on the street (obviously not worth much) was that KIPP proposal would be approved. But the Board split 4-4 behind closed doors. Someone must have made a hasty phone call to the absentee trustee, Brian Turner, who showed up six hours into the meeting and issued a hearty “nay.” Thus, no new schools for Camden.

But it’s possible to glean a little insight from a remarkably frank and fair document posted on the Camden City Public Schools’ website, four files that constitute its Strategic Plan, completed this past August.

 In particular, the Needs Assessment notes that the district’s dismal academic record is exacerbated by the Board’s lack of understanding of and concern with “ using data to develop strategies to improve student learning outcomes and instruction.” Why would they want different options for kids if they don’t/can’t even look at the numbers?

From the Needs Assessment:
Few board members ask to review student achievement data, and those who do are not confident that they know how to use it. There is a perception that other members do not want to see the data, either because they do not understand it or because they are “in denial” about what it says.
What is the Board concerned with? Again, from the Needs Assessment:
The Camden City Board of Education and administrative leadership in Camden face a number of formidable governance challenges. At the core of these challenges is a deep lack of trust and respect among board members and, more significantly, between the board and the administration. This problem has been ongoing for so long that no one seems to recall how it began. Whatever the cause, the result is that over time the board has grown extremely suspicious of the administration and does not trust the administration to keep it well informed.  
In response, the board at times has resorted to subverting the chain of command and otherwise publicly undermining the administration. This approach has proven ineffective in holding the administration accountable and has prevented the board from accomplishing meaningful change. Instead, the Board has become mired in the day-to-day operations of the district at the expense of developing strategies to address systemic challenges and to hold administrators accountable for results.
Approving Urban Hope Act schools requires a consensus among Board members that kids’ needs come before political considerations and adult concerns. This Board's not there yet. In fairness, the Board's leadership has been stymied by too many years of an incompetent superintendent (Bessie LaFra Young); ironically, the only solution to that dysfunction was action by the Board itself, which is responsible for  supervising and evaluating superintendents.  Talk about Catch--22's.  (The current interim, Reuben Mills, seems like a big improvement.

Perhaps the Board needs to adopt one of the KIPP (and other charter schools') common mantra: No Excuses.

Correction: Brian Turner actually abstained on the vote, which kept the vote split 4-4. In order to pass a motion, a majority of Board members must vote "yes."

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