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NJ group raises concerns about Camden's Renaissance School process

Save Our Schools, a grassroots education group, frequently critical of the state's charter school laws, wrote a letter to the comissioner saying Camden's district didn't follow state regulations outlined in the Urban Hope Act.

A grassroots education group, frequently and oftentimes fiercely critical of the state's charter laws, is questioning whether Camden's process of bringing two more Renaissance Schools to Camden violated state statute.

On Monday Save Our Schools sent a letter to Comissioner David C. Hespe at the Department of Education raising concerns over promotional materials mailed home detailing Mastery and Uncommon Schools and a letter explaining enrollment at Mastery. The letter to the commissioner also takes issue with the district's application of the Urban Hope Act, which created the district-hybrid schools in Camden.

The Department of Education did not return calls for comment.

Mastery and Uncommon were approved by the state-run district in February and are awaiting a final decision from the DOE, who received the applications last Monday. Last week the district announced where the schools would open, if approved, and  letters were mailed to students' homes explaining enrollment procedures along with flyers about informational sessions.

"We have been transparent and fully aligned to the law throughout this process, and we are very excited about the potential for hundreds of Camden students to have access to new, excellent schools and state-of-the-art buildings," said district spokesman Brendan Lowe.

The letter sent home to parents also specifies enrollment at Mastery is not mandatory. "You do not have to enroll your child at Mastery School of Camden in order for him or her to attend an excellent school," it says. The critics at Save Our Schools call it premature and confusing to parents.

Parents interested in sending their students to Mastery must apply by May 2, according to the letter. If Masery receives more applications than seats available, it will hold a lottery, the letter explains.

The district has stressed both of the proposed Renaissance schools will only open if the state approves them but has also helped promote the schools, given the quick turnaround should they get the okay.

Last week the administration announced plans to house students in temporary facilities so both schools, without a building of their own, could open in the fall.

Mastery is prepared to enroll up to 600 students at two temporary locations - Pyne Poynt Family School, which won't take on a sixth grade class next year and the former Washington Elementary School on Cambridge Street.

Uncommon would open for 90 to 100 kindergarten students in a to-be-determined temporary facilty.

"Beyond the impropriety of Camden acting on behalf of a private entity in this manner, we are very concerned that Camden is moving forward to facilitate the enrollment of Camden public school students in September in "temporary" schools," said the letter, written by Susan Cauldwell, executive director of Save Our Schools.

The Urban Hope Act calls for new construction and specific financial and construction plans. It does not mention the use of existing, operational public schools. Pyne Poynt currently only uses about half of its building. Both Mastery and Uncommon have plans to build new schools in Cramer Hill and Whitman Park, respectively.

Save Our Schools also took issue in its letter to the DOE with the district's request for an extension beyond the statutory 10-days for submitting the applications to the state following the district's approval. The district requested an extention and in a response letter dated March 7, assistant commissioner Evo Popoff granted it from March 10 to April 7.

-Julia Terruso