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Amendment to N.J. Renaissance school act advances

A bill amending the Urban Hope Act passed the New Jersey Senate unanimously Thursday, putting it on track to Gov. Christie's desk.

A bill amending the Urban Hope Act passed the New Jersey Senate unanimously Thursday, putting it on track to Gov. Christie's desk.

The bill - which includes provisions to define the borders of Renaissance school campuses, expand the pool of eligible students, and build dormitories - comes a year and a half after Christie signed the act, designed to stimulate alternatives in education.

Sen. Donald Norcross (D., Camden), who sponsored the initial act, proposed the amendments last month. His goal, he said, is to give Renaissance schools more flexibility. Norcross' brother is a driving force behind the KIPP Cooper Norcross Academy Renaissance school in Camden.

The Urban Hope Act gives school boards in Camden, Trenton, and Newark the power to approve up to four of the public-private, charter-like renaissance projects in each city. To date, only Camden has used the statute.

The KIPP academy proposal was the only one approved by the Camden school board in November. Academy officials plan to open what likely will be the state's first Renaissance school in 2014 in Camden.

The academy was created in a partnership among KIPP, one of the largest charter school networks in the country; the Cooper Foundation, the charitable arm of Cooper University Hospital; and the Norcross Foundation, established by the family of Norcross and his brother George E. Norcross III, chairman of Cooper University Hospital, a Democratic leader, and a managing partner of the company that owns The Inquirer.

The KIPP application defined its campus as the entire city, drawing criticism from David Sciarra, executive director of the New Jersey Education Law Center, and some community activists, who contend that a campus has to have more specific boundaries.

One of the amendments defines an urban campus area for a Renaissance school project as a radius of 1.5 miles centered on the address of its first building.

The exception to that rule is projects that include a high school. Those projects would have to be within a two-mile radius.

KIPP is planning to have five schools in its Camden project, including a high school, and enroll more than 2,000 students.

School founders hope to open the first school in Camden in the fall of 2014 on a site in Lanning Square that was long reserved for a traditional public school. A second KIPP school will open at the same site later, but the other three locations have yet to be identified.

As defined by the amendment bill, a specific school address is needed only for the first facility. It states that the locations for the other facilities must be identified at least a year prior to opening.

Students residing in the attendance area established by the Renaissance school district would be automatically enrolled in the school.

A new provision allows parochial and private school students, not just public school students, who live in Camden to enroll in a lottery for Renaissance school admission.

Yet another amendment calls for individuals employed by a Renaissance school to establish New Jersey residency within five years of being hired.

The provision of the bill that would have allowed for bonds to fund a Renaissance school project was eliminated this week during a hearing of the Assembly. Also eliminated was a proposal to use New Jersey Housing and Mortgage Finance Agency funding to build dormitories. Renaissance school officials would have to find other financing.