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New type of public school becomes reality in Camden

September 16, 2015

CAMDEN, N.J. (AP) — A new kind of school has moved from concept to reality in New Jersey’s poorest city despite objections from a teachers union and other activists.

Renaissance Schools are only in Camden so far and could become the city’s most common type of school. That possibility is fueling criticism that public schools are being removed from direct public control, along with frets about the students remaining in traditional public schools, where the buildings are usually not as nice and the teaching methods not as modern.

The new schools were created under a 2012 law championed by George Norcross, an unelected Democratic powerbroker who is also the chairman of the board at Cooper University Hospital. Norcross’ family foundation and The Cooper Foundation helped create KIPP Cooper Norcross Academy, which held a ceremonial ribbon-cutting Wednesday at its gleaming new building near downtown. It’s the first of the new breed of school to put up a new building so far.

Renaissance Schools, which started last year, are run by large, nonprofit charter school organizations. But unlike charters, they fall under control of the local school board and are responsible for educating all children who live in their areas. They also receive more taxpayer money per student than charters do.

They were also allowed by law in Newark and Trenton, but no one applied to start any in those cities and the application period has expired.

In Camden, they’re being used to educate students whose district-run schools are being closed. Three charter school operators have been approved to teach up to 9,700 students — or the majority of the 15,000 in Camden public schools. Earlier this year, the New Jersey Education Association, the state’s largest teachers union, asked state Education Commissioner David Hespe to find that they should not be used to replace traditional schools.

For the union and the Education Law Center, a Newark-based group that has sued the state repeatedly to force it to improve urban schools, Renaissance Schools are essentially a way to privatize the education of public-school students. “We should be pursuing things that we know will improve student outcomes rather than handing it off to national charter operators,” said Steve Baker, a spokesman for the NJEA. Teachers at the new schools may unionize but are not subject to the contract for teachers in district schools.

For Vida Rosiji, a community activist whose now-grown children attended Camden public schools, part of the issue is that the Renaissance Schools have more resources, from classroom iPads to air conditioning, than other schools. “Children are supposed to be getting an equal across-the-board education,” she said.

For parents of students at the new KIPP building, those concerns were just noise.

While picking up their students, they noted how teachers give out their phone numbers so they can answer homework or other questions at night, and the school has longer hours and occasional Saturday sessions with topics such as how parents can help their children with their schoolwork.

Melissa Brown, who has a fifth-grader and twin kindergartners at the school, said her children have been mostly in charter and private schools because she has reservations about Camden’s traditional schools. She said she was glad to be in the attendance zone for the KIPP school. So far, she said, she’s impressed.

“They call back and they do what they say they’re going to do,” Brown said.

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Follow Mulvihill at http://www.twitter.com/geoffmulvihill

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This story has been corrected to show that the district has approved operators to educate up to 9,700 students, not that officials hope they have 9,000.