Life at Mastery : In the News : 2 operators get nod on Renaissance schools in Camden

2 operators get nod on Renaissance schools in Camden

Friday, January 31 2014. By Julia Terruso, Inquirer Staff Writer

Two charter school operators, including one with an extensive network in Philadelphia, moved closer Thursday to being allowed to open charter-like "Renaissance" schools in Camden.

"We are excited to bring to the community potential new opportunities for students through these partnership schools," state-appointed Camden School Superintendent Paymon Rouhanifard said in announcing that the applications of Mastery Charter Schools and Uncommon Schools would move toward further consideration.

"Both providers were recommended to move forward based on their track records of success, experience with low-income children, financial stability, and their plan to provide socio-emotional services and engage the local community," Rouhanifard said in a statement.

The district received seven applications last month for the charter-like public-private schools.

Now the district will present the proposals by Mastery and Uncommon to forums of teachers and families to solicit their views, a statement issued by the district said. The district's school advisory board also will give feedback before the plan is sent to the state for final approval.

Mastery's proposal is to open or turn around up to three elementary schools in Camden serving 1,800 students starting in the fall of 2014. It hopes to grow to 4,500 students in six K-12 schools by the fall of 2017.

In its proposal, Mastery said it was interested in facilities in Parkside, West Parkside, and East and North Camden, and would prefer to renovate district buildings than do new construction.

Mastery has 15 nonprofit charter schools in Philadelphia serving 9,600 students in grades K-12. Ten of the schools in Philadelphia were former low-performing district schools.

"We look forward to sharing our vision to create neighborhood pre-K-12 clusters so every child has a high-quality school option through graduation," Mastery president Scott Gordon said in a news release. "We absolutely believe that Mastery can provide Camden students with the college preparatory education they deserve."

Uncommon Schools operates 38 schools serving 10,000 students in Boston; New York City; Rochester and Troy, N.Y.; and Newark, N.J. It has proposed to open an elementary school in Camden serving kindergartners in the fall of 2014, and open an additional elementary school in 2015 and a high school by fall 2019.

The organization said in its proposal that it hoped to eventually run five K-12 schools with 75 students per grade. It, too, would prefer to renovate existing Camden public school facilities.

The Urban Hope Act defines Renaissance projects as "new construction," though state code says an existing building can also be renovated. One critic, David Sciarra of the Education Law Center, argues that the Urban Hope legislation was not created to enable takeovers of existing district schools.

Rouhanifard has said he wants to use Urban Hope funding to renovate three schools and funding from the state Schools Development Authority to improve three more.

In its release, the district announced that the SDA has committed to renovating Camden High, something it has said it will do for more than a decade.

"I am excited about the opportunity to work with Superintendent Rouhanifard, and we are committed to remedy the building conditions at Camden High," said SDA chief executive officer Charles McKenna, appointed last month to replace Marc Larkins, now state comptroller.

In 2012 the SDA put Camden High on its list of facilities in need of emergency repair.

Rouhanifard's strategic plan for Camden schools, specifically approving more Renaissance schools, was the subject of a protest at Tuesday's board meeting.

A group of about 60 people, mostly teachers, questioned why facility improvements could not be funded by the SDA and whether bringing in more Renaissance schools before Camden's first - KIPP Cooper Norcross Academy - could be evaluated was wise. The academy has links to the family foundation of George E. Norcross III, a managing partner of The Inquirer's parent company. 856-779-3876 @juliaterruso