With 55 percent of its students in chartered public schools or renaissance schools — neighborhood schools operated by charter organizations — Camden, New Jersey, has implemented one of the most ambitious portfolio strategies in the nation in recent years. It has done so under state control, but New Jersey will probably return power to an elected school board within the next few years. So November’s elections for an advisory school board, the first since state intervention, were an important barometer of local sentiment.
Of the three seats up for grabs, two were won by candidates who support the renaissance and charter schools. The third went to a candidate endorsed by the local teachers union, which ran candidates for all three seats. All three new members were sworn in Jan. 3.
With 75,000 people, Camden is one of the poorest cities in America. At the time of the state intervention in 2013, the Camden City School District was suffering from more than two decades of poor results, financial mismanagement, systemic inequity and grade-fixing scandals. Even though the district spends almost double the national per-pupil average, some 23 of the city’s 26 public schools scored in the bottom 5 percent of schools in New Jersey. Fewer than half of students were graduating from high school, and even fewer were proficient in reading and math in elementary and middle school. With half of the district’s buildings constructed before 1928, students attended crumbling schools, some of which even lacked running water.
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