About four and a half years after his administration took control of the Camden school district, Gov. Chris Christie returned to the city Friday to highlight the progress state and local leaders have made there.
At KIPP Whittier Middle School, Christie gave an hourlong speech intended to showcase some of his work just a few months before he will be term-limited out of office.
“I am proud to be the governor who came and gave a too-long speech in Camden,” Christie joked, “because you people have achieved too damn much in the last years to keep it short.”
Among the accomplishments Christie noted: a dip in the dropout rate, an uptick in the graduation rate, better test scores and more Camden students going to college.
He suggested that a spark was finally igniting inside the district, after years of deep poverty and scant resources had made Camden schools among the lowest-performing in the state.
Christie told the story of one student, Josh Sims, who took Camden County College courses for credit while attending Creative Arts Morgan Village Academy, a magnet middle and high school.
After graduating from high school, Sims enrolled in Cornell University, the first district student to be accepted into an Ivy League university in a decade, Christie said. “It’s a real point of pride for this city.”
The setting for Friday’s speech was no accident. In 2012, Christie signed the Urban Hope Act, which allowed Camden to open a series of privately-run Renaissance schools, which are similar to charters but must accept neighborhood students. KIPP Whittier Middle School is a newly-refurbished Renaissance school serving fifth- and sixth-graders.
The Republican warned officials and residents against “backsliding” from the changes that took place during his administration by limiting or eliminating the role of charter and Renaissance schools from public education in Camden in the future.
“Any prohibition on the growth of school choice in our state should be met with nothing but resistance by this community,” he said, to applause.
Christie also noted that a recent wave of private investment in Camden had been a boon to school-age kids in the city. Companies like Holtec and the Philadelphia 76ers, which were lured to build new facilities in Camden by generous state tax breaks, offer educational programs for Camden students.
In a major development Wednesday, Christie returned local control to the Newark school district, which had been under state rule for 22 years.
But he left his speaking engagement Friday without taking any questions, leaving the public to wonder whether Camden residents should expect a similar move before he leaves office in January.