CAMDEN With one Renaissance school slated to open in the fall of 2014, the Camden School District this week announced that it was seeking proposals for more of the charter-like, privately managed public schools.
The district, which was taken over by the state last summer, can approve up to three more Renaissance schools, after the city school board gave the go-ahead to KIPP Cooper Norcross Academy in November 2012.
"What we care about most is ensuring every student and their family has access to an excellent school," superintendent Paymon Rouhanifard said, "and Renaissance schools present one opportunity to make that assessment and to see what interest is out there to attract talent to create high-quality schools."
Since the Urban Hope Act gave school boards in Camden, Trenton, and Newark the power to open the public-private schools, only Camden has made use of the statute.
The law, sponsored by State Sen. Donald Norcross (D., Camden), allows a school board to approve up to four schools whose private sponsors would get up to 95 percent of the amount spent on students in public schools in the district to operate the institutions.
"Camden's students deserve a great education and high-quality facilities, and I applaud the school district for continuing to support this effort on behalf of our children," Norcross said in an e-mail.
KIPP Cooper Norcross Academy is backed by charter school giant KIPP, the Norcross Foundation Inc., and the charitable foundation of Cooper University Hospital. The Norcross foundation was created by the family of Norcross and his brother, George E. Norcross III, who is chairman of Cooper University Hospital, a Democratic leader, and a managing partner of the company that owns The Inquirer.
KIPP Cooper Norcross Academy's application initially was denied, but it was approved after reconsideration. Four other groups were denied and can reapply this year, Rouhanifard said.
Each Renaissance school's nonprofit operator is required to propose a plan to complete new construction or significant renovation of an existing building.
Rouhanifard was appointed by the state in August to lead a district with 23 of its 26 traditional public schools labeled as failing by the state. He said the Renaissance law does not mandate that new school buildings be built. Projects could involve renovating existing facilities, he said, so long as the school meets modern standards.
Applicants are being asked to submit education, enrollment, and financial plans by Jan. 3.
David Sciarra, executive director of the Newark-based Education Law Center, which challenged the legality of the Renaissance school projects, said the Camden district should hold off on bringing in new schools until the KIPP school can be tested.
"The first of these models isn't even operational," Sciarra said.
He said the district should focus on improving Camden public schools, "including getting the state to repair and replace dilapidated Camden High."
In September 2012, the nine-member Camden school board rejected proposals from Benjamin Franklin Academy, Camden Center for Youth Development's SMARTS Academy, and Universal Cos. Renaissance School, and deadlocked on KIPP Cooper Norcross.
The KIPP proposal was accepted in a later vote, but the delay affected construction, said Ryan Hill, president of KIPP's New Jersey organization.
Hill said KIPP Cooper Norcross will open in the fall with 100 kindergarten students, but the students will have to attend school in a temporary facility.
The academy plans to have five schools in its Camden project, including a high school, and to enroll more than 2,000 students.
Contracts have not gone out for the main building, slated to be completed in the summer of 2015 on the six-acre plot next to the new Cooper Medical School of Rowan University.
The group is still looking for a temporary location in the Lanning Square neighborhood and will begin reaching out to families interested in enrolling their children in the fall once that is finalized, Hill said.
Felix L. James, executive director of Camden Center for Youth Development, which provides after-school and counseling programs for students, said he would reapply for SMARTS Academy this year, despite frustration with the process last year.
"I always said, if they opened it back up to one school, they should have opened it back up to all of us, but we're looking forward to reapplying," he said.
James called the Jan. 3 deadline to find potential sites for his school and submit the application "tight." The Urban Hope Act requires that districts have Renaissance proposals by February.
James said he would alter his proposal slightly, because he was given no explanation for the rejection. "It makes it difficult to know what to change," he said.
Spokesmen for Universal Cos. and Benjamin Franklin said they were reviewing the request for proposals and considering whether to reapply.