Emotions reach a fever pitch as protesters surround Camden superintendent and demand no school closures

At a Feb. 10 protest of school closures outside Wiggins Elementary School in Camden, public school advocate Gary Frazier confronts Camden School Superintendent Katrina McCombs as McCombs tries to leave after touring the school. (April Saul/WHYY)

At a Feb. 10 protest of school closures outside Wiggins Elementary School in Camden, public school advocate Gary Frazier confronts Camden School Superintendent Katrina McCombs as McCombs tries to leave after touring the school. (April Saul/WHYY)

On Wednesday morning, Camden School Superintendent Katrina McCombs found herself trapped in her car, surrounded by protesters. Her voice cracked with emotion after she’d rolled down her window and told the crowd: “I still love the kids.”

“What happened to you? You were such a good teacher!” shouted Arelis Vega, 33, who has two children that attend the U.S. Wiggins Elementary School, one of the four traditional Camden public schools currently threatened with closure.

McCombs was leaving Wiggins on Wednesday when she was ambushed by public school advocates protesting the closures. The superintendent was joined by Camden Education Association (CEA) President Keith Benson as they toured the four schools — Wiggins, Yorkship Elementary, Cramer Elementary, and Harry C. Sharp Elementary — that McCombs announced last month would be closed for budgetary reasons.

The N.J. Commissioner of Education, Angelica Allen-McMillan, had asked for an assessment of the schools’ conditions, which McCombs has publicly described as “deplorable.”

McCombs has said her decision to shutter the schools was unavoidable in the face of a $40 million shortfall for the 2021-22 school year. Public school advocates question her numbers, and see the closures as part of a political agenda.

Charter schools have proliferated in the city ever since the Urban Hope Act was enacted in 2012, with eight district schools closed since 2014. The Camden City School District has been under state control since 2013, so the current board of education is an advisory one with no voting power over the closure decisions.

Vega and McCombs were born and raised in Camden. McCombs was Vega’s eighth-grade teacher at Lanning Square School two decades ago.

Ironically, Lanning Square represents a betrayal that still stings for public school advocates. It was demolished in 2002. Residents were promised a new public school. Instead, a charter school, the KIPP Cooper Norcross Academy, was erected in its place.

For Vega, McCombs’ decision was particularly hurtful.  She started to cry as she and others confronted her former teacher.

“It’s a big disappointment for me,” she said after police parted the crowd so McCombs could drive away. “How do you change like that?”

At a Feb. 10 protest of school closures, parent Maria Montero and other demonstrators shout at Camden School Superintendent Katrina McCombs as McCombs tries to leave after touring the school. (April Saul/WHYY)

The protest, one of several against the school closures in recent weeks, continued as demonstrators marched to Broadway and MLK Boulevard to block that intersection for over an hour.

Police, many of them also from Camden, handled the protesters gently.

The first person to sit down in the middle of the road was Johntaveenah Richardson, who, like Vega, has two children that attend Wiggins. Camden County Lt. Terrell Watkins, an East Camden native, persuaded Richardson to leave the intersection.

“They’re telling us to take these kids 45 minutes away from our homes!” Richardson said, referring to the distance families would have to travel if the four neighborhood schools are shuttered. “We’ve got jobs! Where are the kids going to go to school? It’s a setup for these kids to fail. And it’s only minority kids… This isn’t happening to white people.”

Squatting in order to get closer to Richardson, Lt. Watkins said: “I agree with you. How can we help the kids? Talk to me.”

“At least leave two of them open, “ Richardson replied. “Don’t close all of them down.”

“It’s a lot, bro. You bring up a lot,” the lieutenant responded.

Richardson told Watkins about his past. “I’m young,” he said. “My kids took me out of these streets.”

Watkins said, “Let me get you out of the street now.” Richardson then stood up and joined his daughter, six-year-old Zakiyah Richardson, on the sidewalk.

Longtime Camden activist Gary Frazier stood his ground as he blocked MLK Boulevard. This particular fight was personal. He and his son’s mother had carefully selected Yorkship Elementary, and the child loved it there.

“It’s a family thing,” said Frazier. “And to have that ripped away from us?”

No timeline has been announced for a final decision from Allen-McMillan, but CEA president Benson has described McCombs’ January announcement as “a comma, not a period.” Benson is hopeful that the state will see things differently.

Benson said that a plan he and McCombs had drawn up with previous state education commissioner Lamont Repollet didn’t necessitate closing any more schools right now — especially since four locations currently being used as schools will be vacated this year when those students move to the new Camden High School campus.

For Frazier, who acknowledged the support of police during the demonstration, the turnout for the protest was encouraging.

“We’ve been in this fight for so long,” he said. “I’m just grateful for some of the new parents stepping up.”

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