Eighth grader Melinda Martinez had pretty much decided that she wanted to enroll in a high school outside of Camden — until she made a stop at a charter school in the city during a bus tour gave her second thoughts.
Martinez, 13, is among more than 500 students who have been crisscrossing Camden to get a look at the city’s traditional public, charter, and Renaissance high schools to help them decide where they will enroll as freshmen for the 2020-21 school year.
This is the second year for the tours in the struggling school system, where the educational landscape has changed since a 2013 state takeover. Previously, rising ninth graders had four options in the city: Camden’s two comprehensive high schools and its two magnet schools.
“It’s a healthy competition,” said Superintendent Katrina McCombs, who operates the state-run school system. “It’s good for our students to have a choice.”
Martinez, who attends Octavius V. Catto Community School, and about 75 classmates this week boarded yellow buses for a half-day tour of three schools. About 20 parents went on a separate tour. Students and parents signed up for the visits.
Before the tours, Martinez was interested in attending the Camden County Technical Schools campus in Pennsauken. She thought it would be a good match to pursue her interest in cosmetology.
Things changed after Martinez visited Mastery High, a Renaissance school in North Camden. The students were greeted by Mastery’s student ambassadors and ushered into an auditorium for a pep rally-style welcome and a presentation about what the school has to offer, such as AP classes and dual enrollment that allows students to earn college credits.
“It has a lot of stuff here,” said Martinez.
Students select schools through Camden Enrollment, a citywide system that lets them apply to nearly any public school in the city with one application. The system is operated by a nonprofit and is supposed to level the playing field for families in a city where more than half of students attend schools that aren’t run by the Camden School District.
The city’s 1,100 eighth graders have until February to rank their choices. Every student is guaranteed a spot at his or her neighborhood school. The final high school tour is Dec. 17.
Some critics believe the tours provide an unfair advantage to charter organizations that have taken over former district schools and to Renaissance schools, which are publicly funded but privately operated. The traditional schools lack the funds to rigorously promote their programs, said Camden Education Association president Keith Benson.
“It puts undue pressure on schools to do marketing,” Benson said. “Our high schools do some phenomenal work, but it doesn’t get out.”
Parents for Great Camden Schools took over the tours this year after pushback by Benson and others who contend that Camden Enrollment manipulated admissions, in part by saying seats are filled at district-run schools. Camden Enrollment officials say they don’t recommend specific schools.
“We don’t promote one type over another,” said Bryan Morton, founder of Parents for Great Camden Schools. “We believe choice matters.”
During the tours, students asked questions about everything from academics to athletics. At Mastery, they also heard directly from students, who served as tour guides and told them about the uniform dress code. Across town at Freedom Prep, they learned that students get to travel to Ecuador and that all are required to learn Korean.
At Woodrow Wilson High, officials touted the schools’ less-known Career Technical Education program, which offers classes such as auto mechanics. The school also has 17 afterschool programs that include robotics and deejaying.
“I just can’t wait to go here,” said Destiny Rodriguez, 14.
Maison Torres, 13, an aspiring lawyer, said he was pleasantly surprised by what he saw at Wilson and would consider it. The school had a reputation for fights and poor academics, he said.
“I can see it’s more than what I heard,” Torres said.
Since the state takeover of the district, more Camden public school students are enrolled in charter and Renaissance schools than traditional public schools.
Critics, however, say school officials have focused too much on Renaissance and charter schools, while the city’s traditional public schools continue to lag.
For the current school year, the district enrolled 6,920 students in the city’s 18 traditional public schools; 4,087 in 11 charter schools, and 5,042 in 11 Renaissance schools. Camden is the only district in New Jersey that has all three types of public schools.
Correction: A previous version of this story misidentified Mastery High as a charter school.