State Moves to Take Control of Camden Schools

Gov. Chris Christie said "the system is broken," allowing thousands of Camden students to fail year after year.

By KATIE ZEZIMA
|  Monday, Mar 25, 2013  |  Updated 2:47 PM EDT
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State Moves to Take Control of Camden Schools

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The state of New Jersey moved Monday to take over the school district in the impoverished city of Camden, where Gov. Chris Christie said "the system is broken," allowing thousands of students to fail year after year.

With support from the mayor and at least some city and school officials, the Christie administration filed the first legal paperwork necessary to assume control of a district in which 90 percent of the schools are among the bottom 5 percent in performance statewide. The district has 20 days to respond.

Once approved, Camden — a crime-plagued city of 80,000 across the Delaware River from Philadelphia — will be the fourth urban district in New Jersey under state control. The others are Paterson, Jersey City and Newark, the state's largest city.

The four-year graduation rate in 2012 was only 49 percent, a figure the governor called unacceptable and "outrageous." Of those who do graduate, only one out of four do so by passing the state's high school exam. Only 2 percent of students score 1550 or higher on their SATs, the state also noted, a metric defined as indicating a high likelihood of college success and completion.

"The system is broken, and we need to take responsibility for fixing it," the Republican governor said at a news conference held at one of the district's high schools.

The state already had a financial monitor in the school system, but Christie said a report in August convinced him more needed to be done in Camden, which has 16,000 schoolchildren, including 4,000 in charter schools.

A transitional leadership team will immediately begin a 90-day review of all school operations, the administration said.

Once the state's takeover plan has been approved, the governor said he would appoint a new superintendent, as well as three additional members to the school board, which will become advisory.

He said the state would also move to revamp schools' curriculum, begin a search to put full-time teachers into slots now occupied by a rotation of substitutes, and ensure that every child has the necessary books and instructional materials.

In its request to the state Board of Education for full intervention in Camden, the state accused the school board and school administration of failing to effectively run the schools.

The application said the poor outcomes in Camden are not the result of a lack of resources. The city, which receives special state aid because of its poverty, spent $23,709 per student in the 2011-12 year, compared with a statewide average of $18,045.

The state's largest teacher's union expressed reservations about the planned takeover.

"It is always preferable to have public schools managed by local communities, and the citizens of Camden must be assured that they will continue to have a strong and respected voice in reforming a public school system that meets the needs of all Camden students," said Barbara Keshishian, president of the New Jersey Education Association.

"The track record for state-run districts has been questionable at best, and NJEA will withhold judgment on the Camden takeover model until we see the details," she said.

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