Last night’s “What is Really Happening in Camden Schools?” meeting was largely an information session for parents seeking answers. The Education Law Center’s David Sciarra and Rutgers Professor Julia Sass Rubin laid out the legal and historical background of Camden’s movement towards Renaissance schools. Other speakers, like Keith Benson, spoke on familiar themes, such as the intersection of gentrification and Charter schools. And parents had the opportunity to ask questions (although I wish dialogue with parents would have come earlier). I’m getting my hands on those presentations, and hope to have additional coverage and even guest posts here. But I wanted to share my big takeaway; a battle over attendance is brewing in Camden.Photo by April Saul in her collection Camden, NJ: A Spirit Invincible. Check out her facebook page.
One of the most challenging pieces of the educational changes in Camden is that there is no process for those who oppose the changes to make an impact. There are no school board elections. The superintendent is state-appointed. Opposition is referred to as a “small group of critics” by the superintendent despite the fact that almost everyone who does come to public meetings is against these policies.
Several of the speakers at last night’s informational encouraged parents to get involved on a different battleground; ensuring that families do not sign their children up for Renaissance schools.
That strategy has potential, but is ultimately tilted in the favor of the school district. In the simplest terms, dollars follow students. So if new schools struggle to reach projected enrollment numbers, and more students stay in traditional public schools, so does a majority of the budget.
Uncommon and Mastery Schools are well aware of this. They have been going door-to-door this summer to recruit parents, and there have been ugly rumors that they’ve received lists of students from the district office, or worse yet, are specifically targeting honor roll students from traditional public schools (I haven’t been able to confirm these latter rumors). Save Our Schools NJ, Save Camden Schools and other local groups are now trying to rally parents to share information that will discourage families from signing up.
With so few options for traditional school advocates, this makes some sense. The biggest benefit comes from the immediate gains to parents of avoiding troubling teaching and discipline issues (more on this in a later post, but the attrition rates of black males at KIPP and Uncommon are unbelievably high, these schools are not good with this population). Also, it has the potential to keep more traditional schools viable. With so many schools slated to open in Camden over the next few years, it’s almost inevitable that most of Camden’s traditional public schools will close. A strategy of keeping students in traditional neighborhood schools could help keep several of those schools open, which is critical because there are no examples of a district going to a charter school then reopening traditional public schools. This is potentially a bridge strategy until education politics at the state level dramatically change.
That said, keeping students in traditional schools over new Renaissance schools is an uphill battle. Essentially, new Renaissance schools have several advantages that have been written into law. David Sciarra and Julia Sas Rubin mentioned a few, including new school buildings (while construction is ignored in traditional schools) and getting the first dollars out of the budget (while traditional schools all faced cuts last year). Renaissance schools that open at a previous school site also automatically enroll all students in that district; meaning students who want to attend a traditional school must choose to leave. And finally, the district is planning a universal enrollment system, like the ones receiving criticism in Newark and New Orleans, that would require parents to apply to the district, then see the district make placements into schools. Renaissance schools would likely benefit in this system because it would guarantee them seats.
Like in all other things educational in Camden, the strategy to keep students out of Renaissance school seats faces a stacked deck. This summer is the start of what looks like a prolonged battle over where students attend school, and the dollars that follow them. The Camden School District has not been shy about playing politics with existing schools; City Invincible was already closed, with its patrons arguing that it was because the new KIPP, Uncommon and Mastery schools needed more kids to fill their seats, or space in their facility. And ultimately, if the district moves to a universal enrollment system, it will quell this method of resistance. In the meantime, skeptics of the new schools and schooling techniques will try to support traditional public schools, and hope that is enough to keep those schools open until politics change at the state level.