Gov. Corzine got a firsthand look at Camden's troubled school system yesterday at Woodrow Wilson High in East Camden, where he stayed for more than an hour talking with students, teachers, administrators, school board members and the acting superintendent.
The low-key visit came as the state released its annual school report card, which showed that Woodrow Wilson High had the lowest test scores of Camden's four high schools.
"I think it's important to pay attention to what happens to policy and the resources we dedicate to it," Corzine said, explaining his visit. "It's easy to sit in an office, but I want some real perspective."
Corzine said his top two priorities for revitalizing Camden and other downtrodden New Jersey cities are public education and public safety.
"It doesn't take much time to see the great need for investment in the physical element," he said at the end of the tour. "One class was using mimeographed textbooks."
Principal Calvin Gunning said that only about 40 percent of the school's freshmen go on to graduate. About 20 percent of the students taking standardized state tests passed the math portion, and 33 percent passed the English portion.
As the hall bells rang and classes emptied, students - hardened by Camden's poverty and crime - seemed to barely notice the governor and his entourage.
"Mister, you going to visit every school?" one student asked.
Corzine quietly answered that he would be visiting a select few.
The governor interrupted a math test in the class of William Sanchez, 14, and Neguan Dunston, 15.
"You going to make it?" the governor asked the two. Both replied "yes," then dissolved into unexplained laughter.
"It's an exciting day. It's important the kids got to see someone successful," teacher Mike Larson said. "It's something they can strive for."
In another classroom, Corzine joined a discussion about the U.S. Supreme Court's Brown v. Board of Education school desegregation ruling, commenting that economic segregation now was in many ways worse than physical segregation of the 1950s.
That's when 17-year-old Shinae Meylor remarked: "We don't have a lot of stuff and equipment compared to Cherry Hill and Atlantic City. What can you do to change Wilson?"
Corzine seemed slightly flummoxed by the question.
"As some would say, show me the money," he answered. "But also we have a responsibility to make sure the money is spent properly. We need checks and balances. We've got a big school construction program. We've spent about $8 billion building schools, but we didn't do a good enough job of making sure it was spent well."
Corzine added that an audit's recent finding that $13 million is missing from the school district's budget would be referred to the state Attorney General's Office.