Standing amidst the busy crowd, there were faces everywhere. I could’ve slipped into the crush of people at any given moment and become another partaker in the Enrollment Fair too; and joined the throng and visited any number of the dozens of schools there. If you’ve never attended the Camden Enrollment Fair, it is an open bazaar of Camden schools—district, charter, parochial, pre-K and renaissance—stationed at tables arranged around the wide-open lobby area of the Salvation Army Kroc Center. On a cold, sunny weekend in early March, over 600 parents filed into the Kroc Center, grabbing swag bags, brochures, pamphlets and assorted materials from schools vying to be the #1 choice.

As a volunteer and supporter of the event (JerseyCAN created informational pamphlets and guides, and provided courtesy busing to families and rising 9th graders), I followed crowds around; I wanted to be a fly on the wall as students and families talked with schools that caught their eye. Occasionally, I’d stop an adult or a teenager (over the two-day event, the first day was reserved for rising 9th graders) and ask them about the Enrollment Fair and picking schools. In education reform, we base a lot of our concern and conversations for improving education and schools around the percentages and numbers, making the most prominent argument to be the one about the numerical differences in school outcomes and performance. Much of this is right and necessary; the numbers tell us an important part of the story about what’s happening inside of our schools. Camden has been the latest to push the statistical narrative to the forefront, and there have been a variety of ways that the city’s education leaders have tried to infuse that into everyday conversations. From town hall conversations, to radio interviews with the Superintendent, to school information cards, there’s been a renewed and earnest attempt to have everyone grounded in the numbers and the performance in our schools across the city.

In reality though, not everyone is there yet. I was reminded of this time and time again when I chatted with folks at the Enrollment Fair. While they all wanted something great from the school they chose, what mattered to many people I talked to was the following:

Had I Heard of You?

Name/brand recognition mattered a lot to attendees. The schools that were often the most popular at the fair—fielding groups of people at a time, closely huddled around their table—were often the ones that Camdenites knew “the best”, either due to word-of-mouth reputation, longevity in the community, and historical academic success.

Where Are You Going? Me Too!

Talking with students on the first day of the Fair, many of their choices had to do with the above—brand recognition, in particular, seemed to be a strong magnet for students—but so did something quite natural for teenagers, too: where their friends were looking to go mattered a lot, too. In one group I walked around with a bit, I saw the power of that: a young woman, clearly a leader of the group of about 5 other boys and girls, convinced kids in the group to consider schools by saying something simple and powerful: “I pick the schools that can tell me how they address their mistakes to do better by kids, not make it sound like kids who mess up at their school are the mistakes.” Heads nodded (including a certain nearby Deputy Director of JerseyCAN) and within minutes, five hands reached for printed information at the school’s table. Later that morning, I saw one of the students in that group standing in close conversation with a school representative. As I passed by, I overhead the young woman say, “….but who do you think is failing at your school, sometimes: the school or the kids? Why?”

A Bridge (or a Neighborhood) Too Far

I’ve talked about this before, but often a full-stop on considerations for a new school was the issue of distance, or more frequently, travel. The issue of safety is a pragmatic priority for families in the city; with so many routes in Camden feeling or being unsafe—due to crime or crumbling walkways—there are many families that don’t feel that schools that are outside of their neighborhood radius are options that they can entertain, even if they wanted to. It’s an issue that everyone in the city is aware of. Last summer a cross-section of administrators, community leaders and students walked 2.4 miles from Camden High School to Creative Arts Morgan Village to show how pressing the issue is and at the start of the 2016-17 school year, the Camden district allotted another $150,000 to bus 223 HS students around the city through a new 2 mile universal policy.

Amongst all this is the fact that there’s even more choice for families in the city. There’s 15,000 school-going families in Camden, and to date, slightly more than 50% of them are now in charter and renaissance schools. Camden’s now home to district neighborhood, magnet schools, alternative schools, renaissance schools, parochial schools and charter schools. There are a lot of seats to go around for families, and the collective presence is putting the screws to all the schools to increase their programming, supports and achievement as families have more and more opportunity to vote with their feet.

Standing with a mother and her three children on Saturday’s Enrollment Fair, we held up a map of the Fair’s showroom floor, and in her other hand she held a list of “FAQ”-style questions JerseyCAN created to help families navigate the field.

As I pointed to the areas she’d want to explore that day to make sure she saw the right schools, she turned to me and said, “I’ve never seen so many schools…there’s a lot to choose from here.”


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