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New Camden High complex completed with a nod to its historic ‘castle on the hill’ past

The new $130 million Camden High School campus is the first entirely new public high school built in the city in a century. It will house students from four high schools.

The exterior of the new Camden High School is pictured in Camden, NJ on Thursday, August 26, 2021. The new  $133 million Camden High School complex is expected to welcome more than 1,200 students in September.
The exterior of the new Camden High School is pictured in Camden, NJ on Thursday, August 26, 2021. The new $133 million Camden High School complex is expected to welcome more than 1,200 students in September.Read moreMIGUEL MARTINEZ / For the Inquirer

When the new school year begins Sept. 7, more than 1,200 Camden high school students will step into a sprawling new campus erected where the “Castle on the Hill” enrolled generations of students for more than a century.

The $133 million school, the Camden High complex, has been years in the making, the first entirely new public high school built in Camden in 100 years. The campus will take in students previously enrolled in Camden High and three smaller high schools scattered around the city.

Built at the intersection of Park and Baird Boulevards, the new school sits on the same site in the city’s Parkside neighborhood as the old Camden High, a Gothic landmark razed in 2017 much to the dismay of some alumni and community leaders who waged an unsuccessful legal challenge to block demolition.

» READ MORE: 'Castle on the Hill' to be torn down, new Camden school coming in 2021

During a tour last week, a small group of students and officials navigated the 242,000-square-foot facility with a size and feel similar to a college campus. A scent of fresh paint permeated the air. A ribbon-cutting will be held Tuesday and public tours will be offered later.

“I love it. This is real nice,” said Jakari Nock, 17, an incoming senior at Charles Brimm Medical Arts High School. His school, as well as Creative Arts High School and Big Picture School Learning Academy, are three magnet schools joining the new campus.

Each school has its own wing, with color-coded floor tiles, and will operate independently as “learning communities.” There are also common areas, including a massive lobby that holds the concrete cornerstone from the original building bearing the 1916 date.

“This is what equity is all about in education,” said Wasim Muhammad, school board president.

There’s also a charging station for electric vehicles, a black box theater, a forensic science lab, a weight room, an occupational/physical therapy room, and a dance studio with mirrored walls and ballet bars. The building is encased with windows that offer picturesque views from classrooms of the Camden and Philadelphia skylines.

“I think this is going to be good for a lot of people,” said Elijah Dawson, 17, an incoming Creative Arts senior. “I can’t wait.”

Camden High basketball player Teron Murray Jr., 15, a 6-foot-4 sophomore, said he was looking forward to playing on a new court. The team played its home games on other courts in the city during construction.

The New Jersey Schools Development Authority, which is responsible for construction and renovations in the state’s poorest districts, allocated the funding for the project and oversaw construction.

Camden School Superintendent Katrina McCombs said the state-of-the-art building was long overdue. A 1987 Camden High graduate, McCombs said students deserved a more modern learning environment, even though she understood the emotional ties to the former building, a three-story English Tudor school designed by Philadelphia architect Paul Armon Davis III.

“This building is symbolic of a phoenix rising out of the ashes,” McCombs said.

McCombs said she plans to push for renovations or replacement for Woodrow Wilson High School, the district’s remaining traditional high school. Camden has been under a state takeover since 2013 because of poor student performance.

Camden Education Association president Keith Benson, who opposed replacing the school, said the new building looks nice, but worried about the future of traditional public education in Camden, where parents have flocked to charter and Renaissance schools.

“There is a need to hold our collective breaths and see what lies ahead,” said Benson, a former Camden High teacher.

The new building does try to pay homage to the old: Advocates had hoped to save an iconic central tower that anchored Camden High and was a symbol of pride to graduates. The new building has a similar tower.

A committee worked with the Camden County Historical Society to salvage some of the school’s architectural features and artifacts, including cases of athletic trophies and plaques.

Two proverbs that were inscribed in concrete saved from the old building were embedded in stairwells. One by Sir Philip Sidney reads: “The end of all knowledge should be in virtuous action.”

Portions of the old edifice and parts of the gym floor where the Camden High Panthers were a powerhouse in basketball also were preserved. The entrance arch reading “Camden High School” was incorporated in an entrance.

There is also a phone booth from the old building retrofitted with messages recorded by Camden High alumni to share school history.

Mayor Vic Carstarphen, his longtime friend and aide Denny Brown, and Muhammad — all Camden High graduates and former basketball players — beamed as they stood in the lobby where the original center court was framed on a wall.

Inside the gym, which bears the name of legendary basketball coach Clarence Turner, the trio posed on the Dajuan Wagner court for a photo with Murray, the grandson of Louis Banks, another standout player.

“This is a place for fellowship — the gym,” said Carstarphen, who won two state titles as a point guard. “This has always been a mainstay in the city of Camden.

In its heyday, Camden High enrolled as many as 4,000 students. When the last class graduated in 2017, attendance was as low as about 400. During construction, its students were sent down the street to Hatch Middle School.

Camden High has produced graduates that include former Mayor Angelo Errichetti; songwriter Leon Huff, cofounder of Philadelphia International Records; former NAACP President Bruce Gordon; and many professional athletes.

Despite millions in repairs and maintenance, the cavernous building had fallen into bad shape. It had poor insulation and a faulty boiler that left it freezing during winter and sweltering in warmer months.

» READ MORE: For students who never returned to the classroom, an ‘extremely hard’ school year comes to an end

Carstarphen said he hopes the longtime residents who opposed demolishing the school will embrace the new Camden High complex as an opportunity to provide a better education.

“We had our memories,” he said. “Our kids deserve a state-of-the-art school.”