A new future for Camden students at East Side High School


After 95 years, the Class of 2024 will be the very last class to graduate from Camden’s East Side High School. At least, the school as we know it today.  

Camden’s East Side High School, a cornerstone in the public school system for nearly a century, is poised for demolition and reconstruction. 

The comprehensive rebuild of East Side High School is not just a construction project – it’s a vision for the future. It will take roughly 3 to 5 years, but when it’s done, it will cater to the educational needs of approximately 750 students in a new 203,000-square-foot facility.

“It’s been proven that better facilities bring better educational outcomes – not just because of new opportunities, but because it shows students that we take their education and futures seriously, and they should too.” -State Senator Nilsa Cruz-Perez

“This project is well overdue and I am thrilled that it is finally time to get the reconstruction of East Side High School going,” says Commissioner Director Louis Cappelli Jr. “All children deserve a comfortable and safe learning environment and for too long, that has not been the reality for the kids at East Side High School. But that is all about to change, and I cannot wait to see the end product.”

Camden City Schools Superintendent Katrina McCombs sees the project as an opportunity to bring equality in educational offerings for the students of Camden. “We’ll also be providing new and innovative spaces for students to be well-equipped as they move into college and career,” she says.

Students will benefit from specialized labs designed to foster practical skills in various fields, including construction trades, medical arts, nursing, plumbing, welding, cosmetology, HVAC, and more. The development will feature a modern media center, facilities for video production & digital media, a computer/technology lab, and spaces dedicated to the performing arts, business entrepreneurship, music, SIFE/Alternative Pathways Programs and special education life skills classrooms. 

Complementing these academic facilities, the school will see the construction of a new auditorium, gymnasium and a cafeteria/kitchen, all of which are set to enrich the student experience significantly.

The project was originally slated to be a $50 million refurbishment, but one tour of the facilities was enough to show local lawmakers that this wouldn’t cut it. 

“It quickly became apparent that no amount of money would fix these issues enough to make a difference,” says N.J. State Senator Nilsa Cruz-Perez. “The amount of money we’d have to spend fixing the existing structure would have just been a band-aid. The school has to be rebuilt from the ground up.”

“This is a substantial investment in the East Camden community and a commitment to the students that we want them to be a part of building a better future for our city.” – Mayor of the City of Camden Vic Carstarphen

The school, built in 1929, has deteriorated significantly over the last 95 years, with its facilities falling into a state of disrepair that no amount of refurbishment could rectify. From outdated classrooms and inoperable science labs to chronic plumbing issues and a reliance on rented boilers for heating, the challenges were insurmountable.

That’s when officials at all levels of government – from municipal to federal – came together alongside community organizations and Camden residents to plan something new. Gov. Murphy also stepped up in support of the investment in public education to better serve the youth of Camden.  A more ambitious plan then emerged, fueled by a $105 million funding commitment from the New Jersey School Development Authority, which plays a pivotal role in addressing critical infrastructural deficiencies within the state, particularly in Camden and similarly underserved districts.

“It’s been proven that better facilities bring better educational outcomes – not just because of new opportunities, but because it shows students that we take their education and futures seriously, and they should too,” says Nilsa-Perez. 

The current facility, she says, does not reflect the quality of education Camden School District currently provides students

“I give a lot of credit to the teachers who worked hard to find creative solutions to teach students despite their lack of resources, as well as to the school district who worked around the clock to improve the conditions wherever they could,” says Nilsa-Perez. “But ultimately, this is a 95-year-old building, and there are some things that are just out of their control, no matter how much work you put into it.” 

This concerted effort sends a powerful message to Camden’s youth about the value placed on their education and future.

“When students walk into this new building, it will be clear that they are the number-one focus here,” says McCombs. “We want to create an environment where young people are exposed to all types of pathways for the future.” 

The school has hosted monthly roundtables with students to hear their vision, feedback and ideas for the future, which have contributed to the redevelopment plans. Students brought up the need for innovative new facilities as well as spaces that improve the overall education experience, like meditative gardens, outdoor classrooms, better sports fields and performance spaces. 

“Unfortunately, many of the students in the district today will not be able to experience this new school, but we want to make sure they feel like they are still a part of this,” says McCombs. “They deserve to leave their mark.”

While construction is underway, students will attend school in what the district calls its “Swing Space” location – the details of which are set to be publicly announced soon. 

“Ultimately, we want this school to be a source of pride in the community,” says McCombs. “We’re building a space where students, alumni, facility, staff and community members can feel proud and supported.”

The planned East Side High School demolition and rebuild is part of the larger mission to revitalize the City of Camden. 

“A decade ago, Camden was a completely different place than it is now,” says U.S. Congressman Donald Norcross. “We had one of the highest crime rates in the county, one of the lowest educational outcomes. Graduation rates were plummeting, and the job market was not good. But over 10 years, we’ve seen this remarkable transformation brought about by really unique partnerships across all levels of community and government, where everyone checked their egos at the door to change the direction the city is headed in.”

The city’s educational efforts began in earnest in 2012 with The New Jersey’s Urban Hope Act, designed to revitalize education in struggling urban areas. The initiative allows nonprofit organizations to partner with school districts in designated cities to establish innovative and comprehensive educational options for students through the creation of programs known as Renaissance Schools. It brought close to $300 million in private investment into Camden’s educational system. Then during the pandemic, the city received almost $180 million in federal funding to refurbish area high schools. The additional $105 million East Side High School project is the latest effort in this work. 

The results of this intense, comprehensive effort are a testament to the collaborative work between community leaders, politicians and the New Jersey Schools Development Authority. 

“When cities approach projects like this, there’s usually a fight somewhere in the middle, where someone is trying to take credit for one piece or another,” says Norcross. “We don’t see that here.”

That’s due, in large part, to the fact that this project focuses on a larger impact than just the school rebuild. It recognizes that it takes all different types of people, skills and jobs to make a city thrive. 

“With this project, we’re sending a clear message that there is not just one definition of success,” says Norcross. “There’s this narrative that you have to go to college to make it, or that success looks like being a doctor, lawyer or a politician, and it’s just not true.”

For Camden City Council President Angel Fuentes, an alumni of East Side High School (formerly Woodrow Wilson High School), the improvements will benefit many. “The impact on the community and the lives of our young students will be felt for generations to come.  I cannot be more proud of how everyone came together, Congressman Norcross, Governor Murphy, Mayor Carstarphen, and Senator Cruz-Perez, to fight for our students and ensure they have the necessary tools to achieve academic success.”

New programs and facilities will reframe what achievement looks like by giving students the opportunity to pursue vocational careers and earn certifications before graduation, enabling them to enter the workforce directly from school or pursue a career while saving money for college later on. Officials are also in the process of working with local business owners to create internship, mentorship and apprenticeship programs. 

“This is a substantial investment in the East Camden community and a commitment to the students that we want them to be a part of building a better future for our city,” says Vic Carstarphen, Mayor of the City of Camden. “It’s a pledge for the quality of the school district, to both invest in our student’s futures and to give staff the resources and support they need to provide the quality of education the students deserve.”

And ideally, he says, students will be encouraged to stay in Camden and use the skills they’ve learned to continue making the city better. “We’re not here to get everything in Camden up to a certain standard,” says Carstarphen. “It’s so much more than that. We can’t settle. We always have to raise the bar,” he says. We’re constantly asking what we can do to better support the community.”

“When these kids grow up and join the workforce,” Carstarphen adds, “we want to make sure they’re asking the same questions, and they have the skills and experience to create solutions and then raise the bar for the next generation – just like we’re working to do for them right now.”


Camden Educational Reform Timeline

Urban Hope Act Enacted: New Jersey passed the Urban Hope Act, facilitating the creation of “Renaissance Schools” in Camden. This initiative aimed to revitalize education in struggling urban districts through partnerships with nonprofit organizations.

Camden City School District Reforms: The state of New Jersey took control of Camden’s public schools, citing persistent underperformance and aiming to improve educational standards.

Launch of Renaissance Schools: Following the Urban Hope Act, Camden welcomed its first Renaissance Schools, offering new educational choices to families and aiming to provide high-quality alternatives to traditional public schools.

Expansion of Charter and Renaissance Schools: The growth of charter and Renaissance schools continued, providing more innovative educational options for students.

Facility Upgrades: Significant investments were made in upgrading educational facilities across the district, improving learning environments for students.

The City demolished Camden High, built in 2017, to make way for one of the largest educational revitalization programs in the city’s history. 

Graduation Rate Improvement: The graduation rate showed notable improvement, rising to nearly 70%, attributed to the reforms and initiatives implemented over the past years.

Pandemic Response: Shift to remote learning due to the Covid-19 pandemic, with efforts to ensure that all students had access to necessary technology and resources.

The District reopened the newly built $133 million Camden High School campus – a 270,000-square-foot campus with the capacity for 900 students.

The City secured the funding and plans to rebuild East Side High School.