Parent Empowerment Drives Camden Education Reform

(Note: a modified version of this post appears at WHYY Newsworks.)

On Tuesday evening, just before the start of the Camden City Public Schools board meeting, fifty Camden parents handed Superintendent Paymon Rouhanifard a stack of petitions signed by over 1,000 families requesting an expansion of Mastery Charter Schools. Mary Jane Timbe, a Camden mother of four, declared, “we want more Mastery schools. We want our kids to be able to from kindergarten to 12th grade and then on to college.”  Sherell Sharp, parent of a 5th grade Mastery North Camden School student, explained to Rouhanifard that “for my daughter, Mastery means that she hops out of bed and is ready to go to school [and] that’s after years of her hating school. That’s a blessing.”

Last Wednesday, just across the river, the Philadelphia School Reform Commission (PSRC) voted to turn down thirty-four out of thirty-nine charter school applications, including some from highly-regarded charter operators like Mastery and KIPP that already have solid records of success in Philadelphia. One PSRC member, Marjorie Neff, voted “no” on every single application to resounding applause from the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers.

What explains the collaborative public school environment in Camden, one that empowers parents to coalesce around efforts to expand educational options for their children? Chalk it up to a combination of fair school funding, well-conceived legislation, and synergetic leadership.

First things first: money. Camden Public Schools is a beneficiary of New Jersey’s historic Abbott decisions. By order of the State Supreme Court (and, later, through the School Funding Reform Act) N.J. has established a progressive school aid formula that provides compensatory funding for poor urban schoolchildren. This year Camden’s cost per pupil was about $25,000. Philadelphia’s public school students, equally needy, eke out instructional and supplemental services at about $15,000 per pupil; this austerity breeds acrimony and short-circuits collaborative efforts.

While Philadelphia parents’ desire for better schools are cramped by the politically-driven PSRC, Camden families (and, technically, those in Trenton and Newark) benefit from a 2012 state law called the Urban Hope Act (UHA), which NJEA described as “an innovative effort to improve educational outcomes for children in some of our most challenging educational settings” and “a creative expansion of public school choice that uses public funds to support public education.” (Full disclosure: NJEA reneged on their support for an amended version of the bill when Gov. Christie vetoed a line that would grant generous early retirement packages for Camden teachers.)

UHA permits the creation of hybrid charter/public schools known as “renaissance schools,” per approval of the Camden School Board. While Camden already had a charter school sector before the enactment of UHA, the bill has fostered more options for families desperate for high-quality seats. Mastery opened under the auspices of UHA, as did KIPP and Uncommon Schools. (Another disclosure: one of my kids used to teach at a Mastery school in Philly.)

Currently, Mastery’s North Camden Elementary serves 300 kindergarten-fifth graders, temporarily located at Pyne Poynt Middle School, and 100 kindergarten-second graders, temporarily located at Cramer Hill Elementary. (Mastery will break ground next week on its own building, as required under UHA.) Approximately 18% of students have disabilities, 10% are English Language Learners, and almost all are economically-disadvantaged. Next year, North Camden Elementary will add sixth grade and Cramer Hill Elementary will add third grade, but that’s it for the parents and children who treasure, as one parent put it, “great seats for every child.”

Thus, the petition presented to Superintendent Rouhanifard, which reads in part, “I want Mastery to create more schools so more children in Camden can go to high-quality, safe, neighborhood Renaissance schools from K-12.”

PSRC meetings are raucous events. Last week’s charter vote in Philadelphia, reports CBS News, “was frequently disrupted by protesters opposed to new charters, four of which were arrested.”

While Camden has certainly had some heated school board debates, the petition delivery on Tuesday was marked by collegiality. Rouhanifard warmly welcomed the parents (here’s a video clip), who comprise part of a new grassroots campaign called BEST, or “Building Excellent Schools Together.” Mastery’s expansion would require school board approval and, if necessary, an amendment to extend the Urban Hope Act’s summer deadline for new applications.

Ms. Sharpe said it best: “A Rutgers professor posed the question, ‘how much power do residents have in this process?’ Well, here we are. This is your answer. We have reached out, we have gone door to door in North Camden, East Camden, and Cramer Hill and more than 1,000 families and growing have stepped forward and said let’s do what it takes to have great schools for every child.”

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