Camden's Whittier school to reopen under KIPP

ByAllison Steele

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The century-old building that housed Camden’s J.G. Whittier Family School, which was closed last year after falling into a dangerous state of disrepair, will reopen this year as a new KIPP school, Camden City School District officials said Tuesday.

KIPP, the nonprofit that operates the KIPP Cooper Norcross Academy in nearby Lanning Square, where Tuesday night’s school board meeting was held, will invest in major renovations and open it as a charter-public hybrid “Renaissance” school, said Superintendent Paymon Rouhanifard.

“We heard from residents who said they want students back in the building,” said Rouhanifard, who was appointed by Gov. Christie to run the district in 2013.

Few in attendance spoke against the decision, which Rouhanifard said was driven by demand from parents. The Lanning Square KIPP school, which will eventually serve students in pre-K through 12th grade, is near capacity.

Officials have said a similar demand led to the announcement last year that Mastery schools will open a Renaissance high school in North Camden.

Unlike charter schools, Renaissance schools guarantee seats to every child in the school’s neighborhood, and must operate in new or renovated buildings. Renaissance schools are publicly funded but privately operated, and have contracts with the district mandating services like special education.

Since Renaissance schools were approved under the Urban Hope Act, seven have opened in Camden. About 2,200 students attend, with an additional 4,000 attending charter schools and just under 10,000 students remaining in traditional public schools.

When it closed last year in the city’s Bergen Square section, most of Whittier’s 238 students in pre-K through eighth grade moved into the KIPP school in Lanning Square. Students in grades 2 through 4 could choose to continue attending Whittier, which continues to operate as a traditional public school located within KIPP.

Renovations at the Whittier building will begin this year, Rouhanifard said, and students who enroll this fall will attend in a temporary location. The building will open as a fifth-grade school, with grades through 8 added year by year.

Rouhanifard has drawn criticism from some in the community who have accused him of pushing the creation of Renaissance schools over improvements to traditional public schools. But Rouhanifard has said that bringing Renaissance schools to the city will allow for faster fixes of the district’s crumbling buildings, because school operators can secure construction work without a public bidding process. The KIPP school in Lanning Square was built in under two years, after more than a decade of neighborhood residents’ waiting for a new public school.

The state-run School Development Authority is responsible for making repairs and updates to schools in the state’s poorest districts, but projects have often been delayed by funding shortfalls.

Camden High School was promised $110 million for major renovations in 2008, a project that was later shelved by Christie. Last year, Christie announced that Camden High was in line to receive “at least” $50 million – half of the original amount.

“What this speaks to is a systemic shortcoming in how the state allocates resources,” Rouhanifard said Tuesday. “For decades, Camden was neglected. … The reality is that we haven’t seen a new [state] building in many years. That’s the reality of the bureaucracy we’re dealing with.”

During Tuesday’s meeting, Rouhanifard said he has been pushing for the state to fund improvements to the city’s public schools. He and other officials said that the Camden High project is moving forward, and that they expect to release architectural plans soon.

“I can tell you this was not a priority to the state until we advocated,” he said.

Moneke Ragsdale, a city activist who has opposed the expansion of the Renaissance school network, said she was disappointed that such advocacy could not have helped Whittier remain a traditional public school.

“The state should have been pushed to make emergency repairs to fix the school so that the kids could return next year,” she said.