Editor’s Note: This article originally appeared in The Philadelphia Inquirer on March 7, 2014.
By Julia Terruso, Inquirer Staff Writer
CAMDEN — As contractors laid groundwork outside for the state’s first “Renaissance” school, Gov. Christie and South Jersey political figures gathered inside – at the neighboring Cooper Medical School of Rowan University – to raise silver shovels to ceremonially launch the work.
KIPP Cooper Norcross Academy is slated to be the first of the hybrid district/charter schools established under the Urban Hope Act.
It will open in a temporary facility in the fall of 2014 with 100 kindergarten students, who will then move to the permanent 110,000-square-foot facility for elementary and middle school students in the fall of 2015, organizers say.
“This stuff isn’t easy to do,” Christie said of turning around the city’s struggling public school district, “but nor should it be easy for us to continue to ignore these children. . . . We can rationalize as much as we like, but we have ignored their futures, and today is a symbol of the beginning of the end of that conduct.”
About 200 people attended the ceremony Wednesday at the medical school – most of them city, county, or state representatives and others with ties to the planned school.
The academy was created in a partnership among KIPP Charter Schools; the Cooper Foundation, which is the charitable arm of Cooper University Health Care; and the Norcross Foundation, created by the Norcross family, including George E. Norcross III, who is chairman of Cooper hospital and a managing partner of The Inquirer’s parent company, and his brother, State Sen. Donald Norcross (D., Camden).
The facility will be the first of a projected five KIPP schools in a mini-network serving nearly 3,000 children. “Today is the most important day of anything we have ever done for the City of Camden, for the children, and for this region,” said George Norcross. “Hopefully this will be replicated throughout this entire city, and 10 years from now children will have the education they deserve.”
Under the Urban Hope Act, sponsored by Donald Norcross and Assemblymen Angel Fuentes and Gilbert “Whip” Wilson, both Camden Democrats, up to four Renaissance school operators each may be approved in Camden, Newark, and Trenton. Camden is the only city set to open one.
Two other school operators – Mastery Charter and Uncommon Schools – have been preliminarily approved to open Renaissance schools in Camden. They await final word from the state.
The academy, at Lanning Square, will replace the district’s original Lanning Square elementary school, torn down 12 years ago. The $45 million project will include a cafeteria, auditorium space, gym, computer labs, playing fields, roof garden, and an outdoor basketball court.
The building plans were taken from a state Schools Development Authority proposal that was cut from the list of priority projects following financial problems in 2011.
Christie has been criticized for halting construction of another district school on the site to make way for the Renaissance project pushed by the Norcrosses and other South Jersey Democrats.
In his remarks, Donald Norcross lamented the delays and “broken promises year after year,” saying that children living near Lanning Square who were ready to enroll 12 years ago when the school came down would now be old enough to graduate.
He called Renaissance schools, which receive 95 percent of per-pupil costs from the district, “public schools on steroids.” Charter schools receive 90 percent of per-pupil funding. Renaissance schools also differ from charters in requiring district approval for projects and that enrollment be based on a catchment area.
Superintendent Paymon Rouhanifard, whose wife is expecting a son this spring, said he wants the same for his child as “every child who will benefit from this school.”
Rouhanifard has encountered backlash from Save Our Schools, a group of Camden residents and teachers, for approving even more Renaissance school operators.
At the last advisory school board meeting, parent Monique Ragsdale rejected any takeover plans or attempts to privatize schools. “Parents have had no role in the creation of this plan and no opportunity to democratically approve it,” she said. “Camden doesn’t even have a democratically elected school board.”
Board President Kathryn Blackshear, who originally opposed the KIPP school, explained her change of heart following the event Wednesday.
“God gave me choices, and I felt like our kids in Camden need to have choices, too,” she said. “If it weren’t an established [charter network], we wouldn’t have gone to them.”
The Lanning Square facility will house an elementary school (pre-K to fourth grade) and a middle school (fifth to eighth grade) serving 1,023 students. Students who live in the Lanning Square and Cooper Plaza neighborhoods are guaranteed enrollment.
KIPP hopes to open three additional schools – an elementary school, middle school, and a high school – eventually serving 2,800 students.
The school day will be longer than in traditional public schools, beginning at 7:30 a.m. and ending at 4:30 p.m. with programs after school and on select Saturdays.
Drew Martin, who will be executive director of the academy, said he heard from many naysayers in Newark, where he was principal of RISE Academy, over whether one class or one school constituted a successful education model. “Now they’re saying, ‘OK, you did that in Newark, but can you do it in Camden?’ ” It’s the first time I’ve heard someone argue educating students in Newark is easy.”