Cerf to Camden schools: Clean up your act

Camden public schools got their latest marching orders from the state Thursday, this time with a bit of an “or else.”

In a strongly worded letter hand-delivered by state Education Commissioner Chris Cerf, the Camden interim superintendent and school board president were given specific recommendations for starting to rebuild the long-troubled district.

The recommendations were part of a 32-page “in-depth evaluation” of the district by a team of nearly 40 state and other officials who cited its low achievement and dysfunctional management.

The recommendations included the hiring of a qualified new superintendent, the overhaul of personnel procedures, and support for charter schools and Renaissance Schools in the city.

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“The Camden Schools need fundamental and transformational reform,” Cerf said in the letter.

“While the in-depth evaluation team found that many individuals in Camden are working tirelessly to serve the city’s children,” he continued, “they also found that the district was lacking fundamental structures to support the public schools.”

And the pointed words didn’t hide the Christie administration’s stated intent to take even stronger steps, including the possibility of state interventions in at least some of the schools. One of the short-term recommendations was the expansion of the state’s monitoring of the district.

“All options remain on the table,” Cerf said in an interview last night, “but a handful of things really need to happen in the near future.”

Or else the state moves to take control?

“I don’t really want to go down that path, but all options are on the table and that is one of them,” Cerf said.

The question as to how far the state will go to intervene in what is arguably the lowest-performing district in New Jersey has been a point of debate and speculation for years, long before Gov. Chris Christie took office.

With state action dating back to the early 1980s, the district has most recently seen the appointment of a state fiscal monitor and gone through a reorganization of its local school board.

This year, Camden was the main target of the new Urban Hope Act, which allows outside organizations to build and operate new public schools in the city.

Still, in terms of overall achievement, little has changed in the past decade. There has even been some regression, according to the state’s latest evaluation. Under the state’s new school accountability measures, 23 of 26 schools would fall into the lowest-performing rung of so-called Priority Schools.

“Put differently,” the report said, “while Camden schools make up roughly 1 percent of all the schools in the state, they account for 33 percent of all the lowest-performing schools across the state.”

At the same time, Christie has said in the past that he would prefer to get out of the business of taking over school districts, and Cerf has lately talked about the idea of instead taking over individual schools.

First things first, the state is creating seven Regional Achievement Centers to work specifically with the Priority Schools, with Camden practically getting its own.

In the first of a planned rollout of the RAC’s new staffing, the state announced yesterday that the Camden RAC would be headed by David Hardy, founder of a charter school in New York City. Hardy led two Brooklyn charters in the Achievement First network, following a teaching career in Florida.

Hardy was expected to be on hand with assistant state education commissioner Penny MacCormack for a special community meeting last night to introduce the new RAC.

State officials said the center would be fully staffed and operating by fall, working specifically on “turnaround” strategies in leadership, instruction, and school climate.

The work of the RAC was among the recommendations laid out for the district in the state’s evaluation:

Conduct and complete a national search for a new superintendent and “hire an individual of demonstrated skill and experience in turning around a failing school district”;

Work cooperatively with the new RAC and its new executive director;

Overhaul the district’s personnel practices, including recruitment and evaluation of teachers;

Support an application for new Renaissance Schools under the recently enacted Urban Hope Act and work cooperatively with the state’s approved charter schools in the district;

Improve training and induction of school board members, and “invest considerable time in developing itself as a functioning governance structure.”

Among those meeting with Cerf in Trenton yesterday was Kathryn Blackshear, the local board president. She said it was a cordial meeting, but Cerf made his feelings clear.

“All I can say is we have a lot of work to do in Camden, and we better start working with the state or it will only get worse,” she said yesterday as she was entering the community meeting. “He was very serious about this report and our need to move forward.”

When asked whether she thought the report and recommendations were fair, she demurred from commenting further. “I don’t know, I really want to read it first,” she said.

Community activists have been leery of the state’s intentions, and one of them last night said she would wait to see the state’s next steps.

“They say they don’t want a full state takeover, but from what I understand, we have about eight months,” said Moneke Ragsdale, an outspoken activist and parent who has challenged the state’s role in Camden on several fronts.

She took exception to the report’s demands for working with the charter schools and the new Renaissance Schools under the Urban Hope Act. “I don’t see how that has anything to do with this — that seems out of order, out of place,” she said.

Ragsdale said she didn’t contest the state’s claims that the district was in trouble. “I do agree we need work; I don’t agree according to their terms,” she said.

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