Long-Debated Camden “Renaissance” School gets go-ahead

New Jersey’s first “renaissance” schools have gotten a green light in Camden, opening up a new model of charter schools for the city.

But after much attention and controversy about the new Urban Hope Act that permits the approach, there have been few takers elsewhere. More than a year after the law was signed, the two other cities in the initiative have yet to even solicit proposals.

The contract for the new schools built and run by a partnership of the Cooper Foundation, the Norcross Foundation, and the KIPP charter school network was completed by the local board on Tuesday and approved by state Education Commissioner Chris Cerf the next day.

The new “renaissance” schools are to be privately run by KIPP, which manages the TEAM Academy schools in Newark, and operate with public funds, much like charters.

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Under the new Urban Hope Act enacted last year, however, the proposal needed to be approved by the local school board. The schools will draw students from specific neighborhoods, somewhat like local public schools.

The act called for up to four projects each in Camden, Trenton, and Newark. But only Camden has so far seen any formal proposals — and backed just this one — with the new law setting a deadline of January 2014 for proposals to be submitted to the state.

The Camden contract approval had been all but certain for months, following a debate on the local board over whether to proceed. One main point in question in the contract was whether the district might share some of the space in the first new school in its initial years until the charter school grew into the 1,100-desk building.

The school will open as a preschool and kindergarten for 300 students, adding a grade each year until it becomes a K-8 school. The other schools planned for Camden will include another elementary school, a middle school and high school.

The final contract left it up to the district to decide whether to use the unused space, including keeping the option open but not having to commit to any so-called “co-location.”

The contract also put in writing the partnership’s long-known intention to build the new school on the site of the former Lanning Square School next to the Cooper University Health System complex. Cooper is a major player in the plan, led by its chairman and South Jersey political leader, George Norcross III.

The long-term lease of the land has not been made final, but a leading player in the talks was confident that will be completed in short order.

“It’s full speed ahead,” said Susan Bass Levin, chief executive and president of the Cooper Foundation. “It’s real now.”

The local district and the state Schools Development Authority own the land, which had been earmarked for a new district school to replace the former Lanning Square School as part of the state’s court-ordered construction program. That plan stalled, however, and now will be apparently supplanted by the new charter school.

Levin said some logistical steps remain, including the facilities approval and site-plan approval by the local Planning Board. But she said the school remains on schedule to be ready by fall of 2014.

“It’s a small (construction) window, but we plan to open in 2014,” she said. “If not completely ready, we may have to lease some space for a short period of time, and then move in when the building is completed.”

She downplayed concerns about the co-location agreement, saying that there is hope for the building to be fully utilized, if not by the district, then by other entities.

“There are always charter schools looking for space,” she said. “We are confident we can find an alternative.”

The head of the KIPP network in New Jersey said he was optimistic about what the new schools may bring to Camden. He cited recent state statistics showing that only a tiny fraction of students coming out of the city’s schools are prepared for college-level work.

“We think we can be a big part of the solution in moving that number way, way, way north,” said Ryan Hill, president of the TEAM Academy charter schools in Newark that are part of KIPP’s national network.

“It probably will be a different level of challenge than we have encountered, even in Newark,” he said. “We’re up for it, and putting our best people on it, and we’re excited about tackling it.”


NJ Spotlight, an independent online news service on issues critical to New Jersey, makes its in-depth reporting available to NewsWorks.

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