The Camden School District will convert five schools into "Renaissance" schools, district officials announced Wednesday, a plan that will involve the closing of one building but that they said will preserve the others as neighborhood institutions.
In three of the five schools, the Renaissance provider will serve all grades in their current buildings, and four buildings will undergo significant renovations, some as soon as this year.
Students at all five schools will not be split up unless they choose to attend other district schools, officials said.
In recent weeks, Superintendent Paymon Rouhanifard had told residents that Renaissance school partnerships could help the district revitalize its crumbling buildings. He also sought to convey that Renaissance schools could provide them with more school choices.
Rouhanifard, appointed by Gov. Christie in 2013 to lead the state-run district, said at a news conference in North Camden on Wednesday that quality education was a "basic civil right" denied to the city's children.
The schools being changed are Henry L. Bonsall Elementary, J.G. Whittier, East Camden Middle, Rafael Cordero Molina, and McGraw Elementary. Whittier is the only school from which classes will move, because they are held in a century-old building that school officials said is unfit for students.
The nonprofits that will operate the schools - Mastery, Uncommon, and KIPP - have been running Renaissance schools in Camden since last year, and they have been approved by the state to open additional schools.
Just one in five district students can read, write, and do math at grade level, Rouhanifard said, and the schools being targeted have declined greatly in enrollment over the years.
"Our students don't have forever to wait for their schools to improve," Rouhanifard said. "We are asking our students and families to stay and let us prove we can provide a world-class education at a neighborhood school."
He was flanked by local officials including Mayor Dana Redd, who said Rouhanifard's decisions were "courageous."
Rouhanifard said each of the 1,144 families affected by the announcement would get a call or home visit from the district to discuss future options.
In recent weeks, rumors had swirled that as many as 10 of the district's 26 schools would close. The schools targeted have been described as five of the city's neediest in terms of facilities and academic performance.
The expansion of the district's Renaissance schools - hybrids of traditional public and charter schools - means the providers will pay for renovations or new facilities for the schools they serve, as mandated by state law.
Rouhanifard has said that addressing the district's aging buildings is a top priority.
Unlike charter schools, Renaissance schools guarantee seats to children in their neighborhoods, and they work with the district.
The announcement raised red flags with critics of Camden's expanding Renaissance network.
Julia Sass Rubins, of the public school advocacy group Save Our Schools NJ, has said that the state's system of approving Camden's new schools has lacked transparency, and that families had been shut out of the decision-making process about how their children should be educated. The state's 2013 takeover of the district relegated the local school board to a largely advisory role.
"Camden is just completely disenfranchised," she said. "There is no community control, and for as many parents who are happy with this, there's been no way to see how many parents don't want it."
Parents who don't want their child attending a Renaissance school, for instance, can choose a traditional district school. But the involvement of operators such as Mastery and KIPP will mean choosing between a renovated version of their neighborhood school and an older building elsewhere.
"How do you define choice?" Rubins said. "It's very difficult to evaluate the demand for these schools in this context."
The partnerships announced Wednesday are pending state approval, district officials said. The district is authorized to eventually enroll close to 10,000 students in Renaissance schools. Just under 12,000 students currently attend district schools.
The five schools are also likely to be put under new leadership. School officials said that teachers and principals could reapply for their jobs and that teachers were guaranteed seniority rights for other district jobs, but that there was no guarantee that all teachers would retain their jobs in the new schools next year.
Robert Farmer, president of the Camden Education Association, has expressed concern that more traditional district schools could close under a Renaissance expansion.
But Farmer said he supported Wednesday's decision because it would place more resources in places where the district can see the greatest improvements. "We believe deeply in the potential of our students, but we know we have a long way to go," he said.
District spokesman Brendan Lowe said it was too early to say whether there could be layoffs, saying it depended on how many teachers retire or leave the district at the end of the year.
After the building housing Whittier closes, students can move into the KIPP Cooper Norcross Academy in Lanning Square this fall.
Students in grades in kindergarten, first grade, and fifth through eighth grades will have guaranteed seats there. Students in second through fourth grades can continue to attend Whittier, as those grades will continue to operate as a traditional school within the KIPP building, with many current teachers and staff. Students also can choose to attend Forest Hill Elementary School.
Henry L. Bonsall School will become Camden Prep Bonsall Elementary, which will be operated by Uncommon and serve current Bonsall students in kindergarten through fourth grade. Fifth through eighth grades will continue to be operated by the district. Students can also attend R.T. Cream Family School.
East Camden will become Master East, which will serve sixth, seventh, and eighth grades in a renovated building. Students can also attend Catto Community Family School.
McGraw will become Mastery McGraw, a new school serving kindergarten and first through fifth grades in a renovated building. Students can also attend Alfred Cramer College Preparatory Lab School
Molina will become Mastery Molina, a new K-8 school serving all current students in a renovated building. Students can also choose to attend Cooper's Poynt School.