by Janellen Duffy
in the Star-Ledger on Wednesday, April 8, 2015

The past seven months have been an incredible and even historic moment for all of Camden’s kids. The success we have seen has helped to confront decades of stagnation. New schools in Camden are teaching five-year-olds how to read and fifth graders all about fractions. In this short amount of time, new renaissance schools have begun transforming the lives of young students and their families as they create a pathway to college. In fact, because of this progress and these new opportunities, the Camden Superintendent, Paymon Rouhanifard, announced last week that the school district is partnering with renaissance schools on five new transformations of traditional public schools.

Instead of celebrating these new opportunities for Camden families, groups like Save Our Schools, the Education Law Center (ELC) and other bloggers and commentators continue to defend the status quo, the same status quo that has failed Camden families for generations. Rather than join the conversation to create further improvement, these groups continue to attack success. Save Our Schools, the ELC and others have been arguing that the renaissance schools are not serving the students with the greatest needs and attempting to discredit the success of these renaissance schools with these arguments.

I have heard these arguments before and the stakes are high if we don’t get this right for kids and families, so I took a look at the data for myself. The ELC’s most recent data appears to have been collected from the Camden School District regarding enrollment patterns at the renaissance schools. However, those data were collected in October 2014 when the renaissance schools were only a few weeks old. Now, seven months into their first school year, these renaissance schools are proving that not only are they serving the neediest kids in Camden, they are also serving a higher percentage of needy kids than the Camden average. According to the latest data from the renaissance schools as of March 1, nearly all students at the three new renaissance schools that opened this school year qualify for free lunch: that’s 99 percent of KIPP students, 97 percent of Camden Prep (Uncommon) students and 96.7 percent of Mastery students. Compare these to the Camden City Public School District’s free lunch rate of 90 percent for the 2013-2014 school year.

Also, according to the latest data, the renaissance schools are serving rates of special education students that are comparable to the district. The overall district rate for students classified with special education needs is about 19 percent, and Mastery, which serves grades K-through-5, is nearly equal at 17.9 percent. KIPP and Uncommon currently only serve kindergarteners. The district’s rate of special education classifications at the kindergarten level is about 9 percent, but KIPP and Uncommon have higher rates – both at 17 percent – and both schools say new classifications are likely before the end of this school year.

Lastly, let’s look at English Language Learners (ELL). According to the newest data from Renaissance schools, 5 percent of KIPP students and 10.9 percent of Mastery students are ELL. These figures are comparable to the Camden City Public School District’s rate of 9 percent.

Based on these figures, the renaissance schools are in fact serving students with the greatest needs and doing so at rates that are comparable and, in some cases, higher than the district.

We need to move beyond these arguments over who is really serving the poorest students and embrace the real opportunities we have for change in Camden. I for one will be curious to see if Save Our Schools, ELC and others can get past these data wars and take a real look at what’s happening in these renaissance schools. We know that parents and families in Camden are looking to embrace these new school opportunities. We should be fighting to support them and the growth of high quality schools with a proven track record that are serving the students with the greatest needs.

Janellen Duffy is the Executive Director for JerseyCAN: The New Jersey Campaign for Achievement Now. JerseyCAN is a non-profit education advocacy organization focused on closing the achievement gap and raising the bar for all students across New Jersey.


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