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Camden school board reviewing 'Renaissance' school plans

The Camden school board is reviewing proposals from three organizations with track records for educating children in struggling urban districts that seek to open up to a dozen new charterlike "Renaissance" schools.

The Camden school board is reviewing proposals from three organizations with track records for educating children in struggling urban districts that seek to open up to a dozen new charterlike "Renaissance" schools.

The proposals - the first of their kind under consideration in the state - could divert millions of dollars and nearly 40 percent of Camden's student population into privately run public schools.

The school board has said it would initially choose up to two plans. Reviews will continue at an Aug. 14 meeting.

All of the applicants have main players who are no stranger to governmental power and influence.

One proposal is a partnership of George E. Norcross III, the charitable foundation of Cooper University Hospital, which he chairs, and one of the nation's best-known and generally well-regarded charter school operations, the Knowledge Is Power Program (KIPP).

Another is being put forward by a community-redevelopment organization founded by music impresario Kenny Gamble that operates six charter schools in Philadelphia. In addition to its social-services initiatives, the Universal Cos. has helped create more than 1,500 housing units in Philadelphia and taken part in developing a public school, a Boys and Girls Club, and recreation areas in East Camden.

The third proposal is for a Benjamin Franklin Academy in North Camden. One of the project's partners manages the largest charter school in Pennsylvania and is owned by local GOP power broker Vahan Gureghian, a major contributor to Pennsylvania Gov. Corbett's campaign. Corbett has praised Gureghian's school, which the state is investigating for possible test score cheating.

A fourth proposal, from the Camden Center for Youth Development, missed the submission deadline, a Camden schools official said.

The proposals are the first under the Urban Hope Act, which Gov. Christie signed in January and which allows up to four projects each in Camden, Newark, and Trenton. So far, only Camden has moved forward.

The law was sponsored by State Sen. Donald Norcross (D., Camden), brother of the Cooper chairman. It provides for private companies to build and operate schools in failing districts and get up to 95 percent funding for students through their home districts. Charter schools are funded similarly, but the new Renaissance schools can get more aid, can be built on public land, and do not have to comply with public bidding rules.

The Camden proposals would each educate well more than 1,000 children in multiple buildings.

The KIPP Cooper Norcross Academy project calls for two elementary schools, two middle schools, and a high school serving 2,840 students. Its first structures are proposed for the site of the former Lanning Square School.

George Norcross also is a part owner of the company that owns The Inquirer.

KIPP's Newark organization, TEAM (Together Everyone Achieves More), would operate and help design the Camden schools if the proposal is approved. TEAM educates about 1,500 students in five schools in Newark and has plans to expand to 10.

"We don't open schools we wouldn't send our own child to," TEAM director Ryan Hill said at a July 27 news conference at Cooper to announce the partnership.

In 2009, KIPP withdrew its affiliation with the Freedom Academy Charter School in Camden because it was not meeting the network's performance standards, according to network officials.

Universal Cos. was founded nearly 20 years ago by Gamble, a South Philadelphia native, hit songwriter, and record producer turned community developer.

Its proposal for the Universal Camden Community Charter School would serve 1,200 students in kindergarten through 12th grade in two or more buildings on state land at Seventh Street and Kaighn Avenue in the Bergen Square neighborhood. However, Universal president Rahim Islam said the group was willing with work with the Camden board on the project's location.

"We feel we can make a difference in Camden," Islam said, noting that other community development, including housing, could become part of their efforts in Camden. "Our No. 1 focus is trying to rebuild our communities."

According to 2011 state data, the Universal Bluford Charter and Universal Daroff Charter, which the company started managing in fall 2010, did not meet federal progress goals that first year. At Bluford, only about 22 percent of students scored proficient or higher on state reading tests and about 27 on math. At Daroff, nearly 32 were proficient or better in reading and 39 percent in math.

The Universal Institute Charter, opened in 1999, did meet federal progress target that year, and, Islam said, has for the last seven years. In 2011, 59 percent of its students tested proficient or higher in reading and nearly 64 percent did in math, according to state data.

Islam said the numbers by themselves didn't tell the whole story. Bluford and Daroff were very underperforming schools when Universal took them over, Islam said. More recent test scores Universal provided showed improvement.

Universal Institute scores, though higher, were below the state average. Islam cited the school's continued progress.

"Our parents are satisfied. We're moving in the right direction, and we have a very safe and positive school," Islam said.

The sponsors of the Benjamin Franklin Academy have declined to comment on their proposal. However, the proposal, which The Inquirer gained access to, calls for a campus of eventually five buildings serving more than 1,000 students in kindergarten through 12th grade.

The newly incorporated nonprofit Benjamin Franklin Academy was established in June by some of the same people behind the proposed Camden Community Charter School at Eighth and Linden Streets in North Camden.

If approved, the academy would take the place of the charter school, originally scheduled to open in September but now granted a planning year by the state.

The academy hired CSMI of Chester as its management company to provide staffing and other services. CSMI also has been working on behalf of the Camden Community Chester School to acquire the vacant land, which the Camden Redevelopment Agency owns.

CSMI is the for-profit educational management company headed by Gureghian, a founder of the Chester Community Charter.

That school has staunch supporters but has also been the subject of a fair deal of controversy.

Since starting with 97 students in 1998, it has swelled to nearly 3,000. It educates more students in grades K-8 than the Chester Upland School District, where its two campuses are.

The school has met or exceeded academic benchmarks since 2009. Yet its academic achievement has come into question as Pennsylvania's testing probe continues. Over time, critics have questioned whether the school overclassifies special-education students to get more money. Also questioned are the fees CSMI claims from the charter school for its services.

Though pressure has been mounting from Christie and Camden Mayor Dana L. Redd to give Camden parents choice by opening more charter schools and now Renaissance schools, some school district officials have quietly opposed at least the charter movement.

Acting Superintendent Reuben Mills received copies of all charter applications last year and sent the state letters of opposition on behalf of the district for at least two.

The Camden school board has shown signs of disagreement among its members. Longtime board member Sara Davis has been vocal about wanting to focus on district schools and not opening more charters. But some of the newer members have various ties to charter schools, making them more likely to be open to the new Renaissance schools.

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