A Few Facts about Camden Public Schools' Transformation

There was lots of bloggy, tweety chatter yesterday about one of Camden Public Schools' five community outreach meetings last week, part of a district-wide community engagement effort to discuss the needs for dramatic improvement in the city’s lowest-performing schools.  These meetings have been almost uniformly positive; parents appear excited about the prospect of their children attending one of the new renaissance schools, hybrid charter/traditional buildings. (Here's my coverage of one of a series of similar meetings last month.)

One parent, Alicia Rivera, said,  “I’ve lived in Camden my whole life, and want my daughter to be able to go to a great public school near where we live. We are a close community, full of hard-working folks, and we deserve to send our kids to great schools down the street from where we live – not across town. I am excited that these changes will give families in Camden more great neighborhood public school options.”

However, at one of those five meetings last week, the one held at McGraw Elementary School where fewer than one in five students can do math and reading at grade level, six members of a wing of Save our Schools-NJ called Save Camden Schools arrived forty-five minutes before the meeting started with a specific message for Superintendent Paymon Rouhaniifard and his team. According to reports from those in attendance, Save Camden Schools Head Gary Frazier proceeded to incite the crowd by spreading "the usual steady stream of SOS misinformation."

The group left after an hour (Frazier videotaped just his section of the meeting) and the evening proceeded. Parents, now unintimidated by the group’s presence, asked good questions, made insightful comments, and expressed support for the pending  transformation of Bonsall, East Camden Middle School, McGraw, Molina, and Whittier, which will now operate under a partnership between Camden Public Schools and one of several highly-regarded non-profit charters.

Here’s coverage on the partnership, under the aegis of the Urban Hope Act,  from the Courier-Post, NJ Spotlight,  and the Philadelphia Inquirer.

Frazier tends an active Facebook page and explains that SOS-NJ began training him four years ago for this role as upholder of the status quo in Camden. He writes,
We knew from this point that something hostile was coming so when they (save our schools NJ) began to show us the disaster that was coming... Camden's voice needed to be established by its own in the state house and not by those whom sat in the State house and wrote legislation to dismantle our district and have our children caught in the middle of their political agenda. All is fair as this was dated February 3, 2012 Moneke Singleton-Ragsdale led Us with this testimony in Trenton. My life forever changed that day for we have shared every victory and defeat together since. Still we Fight! Onwardddd!
For almost 4 years of my life i have dedicated my time energy and everything in my soul to fight for the City Of Camden NJ my home my life and my world. Since i began this fight I haven't slept a lot, my hair is baldening, my feet have calluses from walking marching and rallying and all of my shoes now have holes in them. Those of you whom know me are well aware of what life was like for me before i came to this fork in the road of my life. I didn't ask for this. What i asked God was to help us in Camden. What i asked Him was to raise me up on my feet that i might live my life differently, that i might be able to change the conditions i had come to know we were in while i was flat on my back unable to walk myself. I knew something was happening to me but i never in a million years thought my life would be anything remotely close to what it is now. I often cry out to God and say Lord i cannot do this work anymore. I struggle just like all of you except there are no services that can help me pay my rent or keep food in my place, clothes on my back or on my childrens back for that matter. Many of you do not know this but many of Our educators and one close friend feeds me clothes me and help keep me stable. Many of you do not know People all across NJ helps Gary's conditions, when i am resting which is hardly ever, my dreams somehow give me strength each day to get up on these tired feet and continue on the battlefield for Camden.
Here’s a few facts amid this sort of gnostic gibberish:

Choices for Families: Families will have the opportunity to attend school in newly transformed schools and benefit from dramatically improved facilities, or they can elect to attend a District school receiving ongoing and intensive support.
All students being served: At the five impacted schools, students have the choice to continue their education in their current school building, under new leadership, or attend school in a brand-new facility. The new schools will serve all students, including special education students and English language learners.
Full union rights apply to impacted staff, and all teachers have a guaranteed interview with their school’s new leadership team and seniority rights to open District positions.
For views of parents unaffiliated with Frazier, Save Camden Schools, and Save Our Schools, see commentary from Melinda Rios, Josie Rodriguez, Natasha Galindez, Board of Education President Kathryn Blackshear, Mayor Dana Redd, City Councilman Frank Moran Also see the district parent information page, which has a FAQ page. Here's a sample:
Will these schools serve students with special needs or English language learners?Yes. Renaissance schools are neighborhood public schools. Like District public schools, every student is welcome, regardless of need.
The best answer to this politically-driven publicity stunt that would consign Camden students  to schools that no parent would choose to have their children attend comes in the form of a  letter to the editor of the South Jersey Times. We'll let  Camden mother Natasha Galindez have the final word:
 I have three children in public schools in Camden.  While the schools are all within 10 blocks of our home, they are worlds apart in every other way.  My youngest comes home skipping every day, loving her teachers, excited about school and happy. She is at Mastery's North Camden School -- one of the new renaissance schools.  
Before Mastery, my daughter went to Molina, was held back in first grade and not engaged in school.  Now she is getting all A's and B's! However, my middle son is in 6th grade feeling stuck at Molina.  He feels isolated in the Annex.  
Recently, we heard the news that Molina will become a renaissance school and that Mastery will partner with Molina families to transform it. 
A whole new door of opportunity just opened up for my family. The thought that my kids will be in a Mastery school and could one day graduate from Mastery and go on to college is something I never thought could happen.  
Thank you Superintendent Rouhanifard!

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