After years of consistently low graduation and attendance rates at its two main high schools, the Camden School District is turning to a private company for help.
This week, close to 400 of Camden's most at-risk students will walk into a new approach to learning in classrooms run by the Camelot Schools of Pennsylvania, an alternative-education provider.
The classes - for students in grades six through 12 who have serious behavioral issues or are likely to drop out - blends counseling and tutoring with each student's daily academic schedule.
According to the $3.84 million one-year contract, signed by the Camden Board of Education on Aug. 23, Camelot promises to improve test scores, attendance, behavior, and graduation rates, among other goals.
The district had a 57 percent graduation rate for the 2009-10 school year. And this year, daily attendance averaged 65 percent at Camden High and just over 70 percent at Woodrow Wilson.
This is the first time the Camden School District is partnering with a private entity for an alternative-education program.
And for Camelot, which has programs in four states and serves 1,300 students in Philadelphia, the setup is a "unique arrangement," said Camelot spokesman Kirk Dorn.
Typically, Camelot programs are staffed by its own teachers. But because no law in New Jersey addresses private companies managing public schools, the Camelot initiative will be staffed by a district principal and 16 district teachers, said Camden's state monitor Michael Azzara.
The teachers, who will face some of the most challenging youths in the district, are all new hires.
About half are Teach for America graduates, a teacher-recruiting program that attracts recent college graduates for two-year commitments, while they obtain teaching certifications.
There are experienced Camden teachers who would have been a good fit for the alternative-education program, according to Camden Education Association president Laverne Harvey. But she said district officials told her that all veteran teachers had already been given their school assignments by the time the Camelot contract was signed.
Camelot's vice president of alternative education, Milton Alexander, said Camelot had long had a partnership with Teach for America and found that the graduates were a good fit for Camelot's mission.
"They are hardworking, energetic, and willing to learn," Alexander said.
Some urban-education academics have concerns.
"It's a very, very bad idea," said Pedro Noguera, a New York University education professor with expertise in urban education. "Why would you take inexperienced 22-year-olds, mostly of affluent areas, and put them with this population?"
Camelot officials say they are confident the newcomers will have sufficient training to work with the often unruly students. Training for Camden's Camelot teachers, which started Thursday, focuses on behavior modification and dealing with trauma, Alexander said.
Besides the 16 district teachers, 48 Camelot staffers will provide behavioral support, counseling, special-education supervision, and clerical support.
The 400 students - about 3 percent of district enrollment - will be placed in three different programs:
The accelerated program, which will be housed at the former George Washington School building in Cramer Hill, will work with the 140 students the district identified as "over-aged and under-credited," meaning they are a year or two behind schedule to graduate, such as a 17-year-old sophomore or a 20-year-old senior.
The transitional-education program will consist of 150 students in grades six through 12 who have extreme behavioral issues. The staff, based in the former Creative Arts High School building in Waterfront South, will work to transition students back to regular school.
The "school within a school" will function inside Camden High School. It will serve about 100 students, to be identified during the school year, with behavioral issues that could otherwise lead to suspension or expulsion.
Thirty-eight percent of students at Camden High and 30 percent at Woodrow Wilson were suspended at some point during the 2009-10 school year, compared with the 14 percent average for all public schools in the state, according to state records.
Students in the Camelot programs will receive individual and group counseling and have team-building activities in addition to the core English, math, and science classes and remedial help daily, Alexander said.
In Philadelphia, Camelot's accelerated programs this year graduated 91 percent of its eligible students, according to Camelot's statistics. The alternative programs graduated all of its eligible students.
The Philadelphia School District did not return calls for comment.
The Camden School District has had district-run alternative programs in the past, most recently the South Camden Alternative School, which served students in sixth through eighth grade and closed in June 2010.
The average daily attendance rate for South Camden Alternative was 68 percent. And about eight of every 10 students were suspended during its last school year.
"Looking at the track history . . . doing it solely in-district did not have great success," said assistant superintendent Andrea Gonzalez-Kirwin.
School district officials and urban-education experts agree that there is a sector of the student population in poor school districts such as Camden that comes from such traumatic households and upbringings that the regular public-school learning environment is not enough for them.
"There are a certain number of students that have needs that are not met by traditional public school," Noguera said.
But Noguera warns that many alternative programs in inner cities have a tendency to fail.
"The fear you have to have is that it's a dumping ground" for students a district does not want to deal with, he said.
Camden School District officials say that they will closely monitor the Camelot programs and that if it goes well, the district has the option to renew its one-year contract. The district, though, is ultimately responsible for the academic achievement of the students, Gonzalez-Kirwin said.
Whether it is a district-run or privately run alternative program, Noguera said, it "comes down to quality" of teachers.
"Making sure these are capable teachers," he said. "These are kids . . . who are their advocates? Their parents usually aren't involved."