One of Camden's highly controversial Renaissance schools opened Wednesday with little fanfare, but lots of smiles.
Mastery welcomed 400 students at schools in North Camden and Cramer Hill. The Philadelphia-based charter network is one of three Renaissance schools opening this fall.
The morning brought its share of students crying and not wanting to let go of mom and dad, but most were bright-eyed, filled with first-day jitters.
"It can be hard to say goodbye," said Caridad Negron, who dropped two children off Wednesday. "But things went smooth this morning."
But the road to opening Renaissance schools in Camden has been bumpy. The hybrid schools, which operate with the autonomy of a charter in a neighborhood school setting, have been the topic of intense debate since being created by the Urban Hope Act in 2012.
Naysayers claimthe schools will eventually lead to the end of the traditional public school district in Camden. However, supporters see the schools as a welcome change for the struggling city school district.
"I did my homework in deciding to send my kids here," said David Lofland, a North Camden parent. "We went to meetings, looked at the pros and cons, but in the end I wanted what's best for my son.
Students and staff were dressed in blue shirts Wednesday, a Superman-like "M" embroidered on their left lapel. Each child was greeted at the door with a handshake or a high-five from an administrator.
Once inside the school, students ate breakfast and got to know their teachers. Each class is not identified by a room number or a teacher name, but instead a university.
Large banners for colleges were also hung around the school.
"We are focused on higher education and getting them focused on the next stage of life," said Mastery CEO Scott Gordon.
"But what's important isn't just academic skills, kids need to learn they have the (ability) to take on the world and that is something we try to develop in an explicit way."
That's what drove Ivan Rivera and Mary Jane Timbe to enroll three of their kids at Mastery. The family moved from Lancaster, Pa., to North Camden two years ago and have been unhappy with the Camden School District.
"It's like a circus over there," Timbe said. "We know what great schools are, coming from living in Lancaster, and (Camden) schools just weren't cutting it for our kids."
Mastery has made promises to families and students that they will receive a "well-rounded education." The charter school also has made a commitment to serve all students, including those with special needs.
Approximately 24 percent of students have an Individualized Education Plan, or IEP, and 11 percent are English Language Learners, school officials said.
Critics of the Renaissance schools say otherwise. For example, Mastery's discipline policy was called into question at a recent community meeting run by the Education Law Center and Save Our Schools NJ.
Save Our Schools NJ spokeswoman Julia Sass Rubin painted a picture where Mastery students are tracked through merit and demerit cards hung around their necks. Demerits could be issued for such minor offenses as "students having their shirts untucked or chewing gum," Sass Rubin said.
No such demerit cards were present at school Wednesday. In fact, Gordon dismissed the critics.
"Families want a great school. They want to know if this is good for their child, and the rest is adult noise and political noise that is really not about children," Gordon said. "We are trying to focus on kids and families. That is what is important."