"All Camden High alumni should be proud of what is taking place here. It's for our children. It's not about us."That’s Camden County Sheriff Gilbert “Whip” Wilson, a 1965 Camden High School graduate, musing about a small albeit noisy stink from a clique of about half a dozen people who oppose recently-approved plans to raze the 100-year-old crumbling Camden High School -- nostalgically known as the “Castle on the Hill” -- and construct a $133 million state-of-the-art facility that will include four small learning communities, two gymnasiums, two cafeterias, a modern media centers, science labs, and top-notch student and staff resources.
What’s not to like?
Plenty, according to members of the “Save Camden High School” cadre, who have rebranded themselves under the New Jersey Communities United banner and are planning a confrontation tonight at the Camden Board of Education meeting. Instead of following Sheriff Wilson’s example of placing children’s academic needs on top, this group has decided a years-old, dead-end debate will be its issue du jour, even if it’s to the detriment of students. More broadly, the group’s members represent a microcosm of those who masquerade as social justice warriors while placing adult-centric politics over systemic school improvement.
Eight years ago the Star Ledger described the debilitated state of the “Castle on the Hill”: “emergency scaffolding protects students entering and leaving the school from pieces of plaster and masonry falling off the decaying high school. A new chain-link fence keeps pedestrians clear of other portions of the wall, and broken windows dot the three-story facade.” More recent problems--as shown in the school district’s own video-- include cracked steps, crumbling infrastructure, leaking pipes, “indoor vegetation growth,” and an ancient boiler that has required over a million dollars in chewing gum and bailing wire.
Camden is an Abbott district (very poor) and, appropriately, school construction costs are borne by the state. Camden High School has been on the state’s list of construction projects forever (well, at least eight years) but that’s government work for you, especially after Chris Christie’s de-funding of the till. Architects and engineers tried mightily to find a way to renovate the building and preserve the tower, but that would have added at least $70 million to costs. (Preliminary drawings of the new building include a similar tower.)
Superintendent Paymon Rouhanifard, recognizing the sensitivity of the issue, held multiple meetings where, according to spokesman Brendan Lowe, “hundreds of community members weighed in on the Camden High plan, including alumni, parents, community leaders, and more. Since the announcement of the state’s commitment to rebuilding,” he continued, “the district has held four meetings with students, three meetings with staff members, three meetings with families, and two community meetings.” The district press release specifies “the creation of three community-led committees” which will be filled with “alumni and Camden residents.”
Sheriff Wilson articulated the consensus: “We understand the historic, iconic aspects of Camden High. We don’t want to eradicate history. But the school is beyond its useful life.”
But not according to our noisy clique, led by Emily Devenney, a young person of pallor who attended the private Holy Cross Academy in Delran, the University of Massachusetts, and is currently a paid organizer for the union-allied New Jersey Communities United.
It’s worth noting that since Superintendent Rouhanifard’s arrival the graduation rate has leapt from 53% in 2013 to 70% this past June. The drop-out rate is down to 12%, from 21%. Students proficiency in both math and language arts is up. Camden Public Schools, long a symbol of academic malfeasance, is truly improving. Now it’s time for the infrastructure to improve too. The “Castle on the Hill” was a symbol of ascendency. Time for the real deal.