Three more Camden schools to close, officials announce

Ednalieze Figueroa, 5, who attends Wiggins School in Camden, protests the closure of her school on Fabruary 6, 2021 with an assist from activist Victoria Pellot.  (April Saul for WHYY)

Ednalieze Figueroa, 5, who attends Wiggins School in Camden, protests the closure of her school on Fabruary 6, 2021 with an assist from activist Victoria Pellot. (April Saul for WHYY)

Camden school officials have announced the closure in the fall of three of four schools District Superintendent Katrina McCombs planned to shutter because of budgetary concerns.

Set to close are Harry C. Sharp Elementary School, Cramer Elementary School, and Ulysses Wiggins School. New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy and Acting Commissioner of Education Angelica Allen-McMillan vowed to make the necessary repairs to keep the fourth school, Yorkship Family in Fairview, open.

“With the support of state and local officials, and with input gathered over the course of six months, Camden City School District is now poised to implement a plan that will improve the quality of education offered by our district and place the district on solid financial footing,” Superintendent McCombs said in a statement. “We now shift our focus to the important work of ensuring that each and every impacted family is fully supported through this transition.”

At a February 10, 2021 protest of school closures outside Wiggins Elementary School in Camden, demonstrators gather at the school gate to confront Camden School Superintendent Katrina McCombs as McCombs tries to leave after touring the school. (Photo by April Saul for WHYY)

For public education advocates, the decision was a body blow in a state-controlled district in which they believe the proliferation of charter and Renaissance schools has hindered the growth of traditional schools.

Camden Education Association president Keith Benson, who said he met with McCombs and Allen-McMillan Friday morning, called the ruling “catastrophic.”

“Even when you get $63 million,” losing schools has always been the district’s “Number One option,” he said, referring to mostly pandemic-related funding recently awarded to the district. “You don’t do this stuff to people you care about.”

Benson said he also believes that the new Camden High School complex opening this fall, which would enable students to vacate several other buildings, should have helped stave off closures.

Demonstrators gather at City Hall in Camden to protest school closures on Feb. 26, 2021. (April Saul for WHYY)

Although fiscal reasons were initially given for the shuttering of the schools, Benson said money really didn’t come up in his last meeting with McCombs and Allen-McMillan.

“They didn’t get into the budget at all,” said Benson, “or say anything about the conditions of Wiggins, Cramer, or Sharp.” He said that the focus was on a low birth rate in Camden that made the number of schools — 19 for 6,000 students — unsustainable, and that Yorkship was spared only because no other schools were nearby.

Public school advocates believe the charter/Renaissance juggernaut began after the Urban Hope Act was passed in 2012 and the state took over the Camden School District in 2013. With the addition of these three schools, a total of 11 traditional public schools will have closed in the city in eight years.

Benson said he received the press release announcing the final decision during the Friday morning meeting, which made it clear to him that the decision he thought they were still discussing had already been made.

At a Feb. 26, 2021 demonstration at Camden City Hall, children protest the school closures. (April Saul for WHYY)

Although transportation for affected families was guaranteed in the announcement, many families who protested the closures expressed their frustration with having to send their children to charter schools if these traditional schools were closed.

“The fact that Cramer sits surrounded by Mastery schools actually helped make the decision to close Cramer,” Benson said.

In the relocation plan that was unveiled, Sharp School students in kindergarten through fifth grade will be moved to Veterans Memorial School, and students entering grades 6 to 8 will attend Davis Elementary School. Cramer School students will also go to Davis. Wiggins School students from kindergarten through fifth grade will attend Forest Hill School, and students in grades six through eight will go to Creative Arts Morgan Village Academy.

During the months of discussion about the closures, on which board members were not allowed to vote, many parents, students, and activists pleaded with McCombs — at virtual meetings, protest marches, and sidewalk demonstrations — to keep the neighborhood schools open.

At a contentious November board meeting, McCombs, a Camden native, said, “This does not have to be a situation where people are pitted against each other, but if it has to be, so be it.” Last month, while touring the four schools with Benson and others to inspect what McCombs had said were “deplorable conditions” too expensive to repair, protesters surrounded the superintendent’s car to plead their case in an emotional exchange.

At a March 5, 2021 protest of school closures after the decision was announced, Sharp School student Kason Moreira, 7, goes on social media with activist Gary Frazier; Moreira, a special needs student, flourished at Sharp after being rejected for admission by a charter school. (April Saul for WHYY)

Karla Moreira, whose 7-year-old son Kason Moreira attends Sharp, saw irony in the fact that McCombs was the one who had insisted that Kason would benefit from Sharp’s expertise with special-needs children. Kason, said Moreira, was “nonverbal” when he arrived at the school, and had previously been rejected by the charter Camden Promise.

“After coming here, he couldn’t stop talking,” she said. “And now he’s one of the best readers in his grade.”

Moreira and other activists — some in tears — stood outside Sharp School Friday afternoon after the decision was announced, and vowed to continue fighting.

Among them were Ivory McGhee-Belfort and her four children, all of whom have attended Sharp. Daughter Yazmin Belfort, 17, now a senior in high school, recalled having first fought to save Sharp as a fifth grader; the school had been threatened with closure multiple times.

“After the first time, you would think people would understand,” she said. “But I don’t expect better from the district.”

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