Standing behind a mound of dirt, Camden Mayor Frank Moran yelled over the sounds of tractors.
“If you want the High —,” he started.
“You got the High,” the audience chanted back, proudly finishing his cheer. Many members of the crowd — including teachers, alumni, and students of Camden High School — were more than familiar with the mantra.
More than 80 onlookers gathered Wednesday afternoon for the groundbreaking ceremony at 1700 Park Blvd., where the more-than-century-old high school building was located and the site of its replacement.
In 2016, the New Jersey Schools Development Authority allocated $130 million for the new school, set to open its doors to more than 1,200 students in September 2021.
“Although the building may have been demolished, we are still standing on sacred ground,” Camden school superintendent Katrina McCombs told the crowd, which included New Jersey assistant education commissioner Cary Booker, and New Jersey Schools Development Authority interim CEO Manuel Da Silva.
Construction teams placed steel beams on the site this month, laying the foundation for the 242,000-square-foot facility. The new school will house the basics — such as a gym and cafeteria — and modern amenities including a black box theater, a forensic science lab, and a dance studio.
Da Silva acknowledged the community’s long-standing connection to the former building, which dated to 1916. Camden High graduates fondly referred to the old facility as the “Castle on the Hill” in homage to its Gothic architecture and its perch overlooking the city.
But as the structure aged, the need for renovation intensified, and the SDA concluded the “castle” would be unsalvageable.
Beginning in the 2017-18 school year, Camden High’s students were relocated to Hatch Middle School.
Two Camden High rising seniors, Nyomi Stewart and Shabriah Nichols, called Hatch small and said they preferred the old Camden High building, which offered more courses. Still, they said, the wait for the new building would be worthwhile.
Camden High principal Alex Jones said the move “initially felt like putting an elephant in a shoe box.”
While the transition has worked out well, he and other members of the school community are eager for the new facility to open, he said.
Upon hearing of the planned demolition of the structure, a group of community members organized under the name Save Camden High School. Doris Carpenter, a longtime Camden resident and former teacher at Camden High, lamented the loss of the historic building. She likened the project to other gentrification efforts she has seen in Camden through the years.
“The school was more than beauty,” said Carpenter, who now lives in Pennsauken. “The school was hope.”
Portions of the old edifice, parts of the gym floor and leaded glass, will be installed in the new structure. The entrance arch reading “Camden High School” will be placed in front.