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Camden Schools Announce Changes
Officials call new plan “building a stronger, more sustainable school district for our children”

Citing the evolution of Camden’s school district in recent years and the progress it has brought for students, school officials have announced new plans for the 2021-22 school year. After a 6-month review and planning process with hundreds of parents, educators and professionals, officials plan to shutter 4 district schools and transition students to higher-quality facilities. The changes are necessary, they say, and will give parents greater choice and lead to financial success for the district.

“Our students in Camden are entitled to the best facilities, education and support,” says Katrina McCombs, Camden’s Superintendent of Schools. “It is my mission as Superintendent to place students in schools that give them the best opportunity to succeed.”

McCombs points to the advancements the school district is seeing after years of transformation. Almost 70% of high school students now graduate (compared to less than half in years past), student proficiency in math and reading has increased for 4 consecutive years, and more families (60%) are exercising their option to choose public charter and public Renaissance schools. The state has also invested $500 million to improve school facilities, and this fall a new $133 million Camden High School – with its modern media center, science labs and gymnasium – will open.

This evolution has been years in the making, sparked by the Urban Hope Act in 2012, which allowed certain districts to partner with nonprofit entities to open Renaissance schools. The act was supported by NJEA, whose then-chief lobbyist Ginger Gold Schnitzer said, “We have always supported public school choices.”

Conditions in some district schools are “deplorable,” says Superintendent Katrina McCombs

Officials note, though, that enrollment has dropped almost 50% since 2013, leading to a drain on financial resources and a number of school buildings that are in great need of repair. McCombs called the facilities “deplorable,” describing unacceptable bathroom conditions, failing air conditioning/heating systems, broken water fountains (the district has been purchasing bottled water for students) and other hazardous conditions. Taking into consideration the decline in enrollment and physical improvements that are needed, the school district is estimating a $40 million deficit next year.

Mayor Francisco “Frank” Moran says the budget deficit is unsustainable, and change is necessary. “Closing buildings that are 30% empty and in a state of disrepair is the responsible course of action; our students deserve a better learning environment,” he says. “I cannot also in good conscience solve this budget deficit via a tax increase on the backs of Camden residents this year, that too in the middle of a pandemic.”

Recognizing the poor physical condition of schools and the significant budget deficit, officials formed a planning committee last year to address the issues. The group held 12 meetings and 2 community forums, reviewed enrollment projections, and conducted 750 community surveys. In addition to the school consolidations, the committee also recommended the beginning of a middle school model, which will be piloted at Create Arts Morgan Village Academy. Camden currently has no middle school.

“Over the course of 6 months, my team and I have gathered feedback from over 500 residents, including parents, educators and faith leaders,” says McCombs. “The input we received informed our final plan. This is the Camden City School District taking another step toward fulfilling our promise of putting students first.”

One member of the planning committee, Shirley Irizarry, who is also executive director of Parents for Great Camden Schools, says she’s committed to working with the district. “The long-term school planning process was transparent, thorough and serious about reaching out to gather community feedback. Anyone who reviewed the enrollment projections and budget, and heard Superintendent McCombs’ vision for additional investments in instruction would understand that school consolidations were needed. Moving forward, parents are eager to see a smooth transition, and I commit to working with the District – and holding them accountable – to make that happen.”

Another committee member, Sean Brown, who used to sit on the city’s school board, says this plan sets the district in the right direction. “Superintendent McCombs is a lifelong Camden educator who has earned my trust. Transportation being provided to all impacted students proves that she is being responsive to the needs of families. I believe we need a smaller district that provides a better education, and this plan is a step in the right direction.”

Schools being closed are: Harry C. Sharp, Cramer, U.S. Wiggins and Yorkship. All 4 of these school buildings are in need of repair; 3 are over 100 years old, McCombs says. She also notes that the schools have been 30% empty, wasting capital and operating dollars that could be used in other schools.
The outlined plan guarantees every student will receive a spot in a district school.

Sharp students entering grades K to 5 will go to Veterans Memorial School, and students entering grades 6 to 8 will go to Davis School.

Cramer students will go to Davis school.

Wiggins students entering grades K to 5 will go to Forest Hill School, and students entering grades 6 to 8 will go to Creative Arts Morgan Village Academy.

Yorkship students entering grades K to 2 will go to Cream School. Students entering grades 3 to 5 will go to HB Wilson School, and those entering grades 6 to 8 will go to Creative Arts Morgan Village Academy

Parents also have choices of other publicly funded schools including public charter and Renaissance public schools.

To ensure students and their families have a positive transition, officials announced several new offerings: All affected students will be able to receive transportation from the district, which previously was not provided when a school in the district closed. In addition, families will be contacted by a school district staff member and have a hotline they can call with any questions. During the school day, students will have access to support services to help them in their new environment.

President of the Camden City School District Advisory Board Wasim Muhammad applauded the new plan. “I am immensely proud of the progress Camden has made over the past few years,” he says. “Today’s announcement is about making sure the district is well positioned to continue this progress tomorrow and well into the future.”

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