Hundreds of politicians, officials, and Camden residents on Wednesday celebrated the opening of the building that houses the city's - and the state's - first Renaissance charter school, a facility replacing a neighborhood public school that was demolished more than a decade ago.
The gleaming 110,000-square-foot KIPP Cooper Norcross Academy on South Broadway in Camden's Lanning Square now hosts about 700 students in pre-K, elementary, and middle school, but in the coming years it will add a high school and serve 2,800 students.
KIPP launched in Camden in 2012 after teaming up with the charitable foundation of Cooper University Hospital and the Norcross Foundation Inc. The foundation was created by the family of U.S. Rep. Donald Norcross and his brother George E. Norcross III, a powerful Democratic leader in South Jersey and chairman of Cooper, which built a medical school next door to KIPP.
Camden Mayor Dana Redd praised George Norcross as "the greatest friend Camden has ever had." She thanked Donald Norcross, a former state senator, for supporting the Urban Hope Act, the bill that gave school boards in several New Jersey cities the power to approve Renaissance schools.
Donald Norcross praised Gov. Christie for signing the law.
"The system wasn't working for those children," he said. "Gov. Christie showed courage in understanding what we were dealing with."
The law paved the way for the charter-school powerhouses Mastery and UnCommon to operate in Camden as district-charter hybrid Renaissance schools. Unlike charters, Renaissance schools must guarantee seats to every child in the school's catchment area, and must operate in new or renovated buildings. They are publicly funded but privately operated, and have contracts with the district mandating that they provide wraparound services such as special education.
With labs, an athletic field, and large, light-filled classrooms, the KIPP facility is a crown jewel in a district where many school buildings are a century old. This fall, three grades from the now-closed J.G. Whittier Family School moved into the complex, where they operate as a traditional public school in a separate wing. KIPP is over-enrolled with a waiting list of more than 300 kids, said Drew Martin, the school's executive director, and state test scores are up in its first-ever class, the kindergarten students who started going to KIPP last year in trailers near the construction site.
Since KIPP's approval, several other Renaissance schools have opened in Camden, which has been under a state-run takeover since 2013 due to its low-performing schools. The Renaissance expansion has led to fears that the state plans to eliminate the city's traditional public schools.
The KIPP project is a long-standing symbol of the distrust between the city's leaders and some community members. After the Lanning Square Elementary School was demolished in 2002, the state spent $10 million to acquire land by seizing homes near the school and to commission architectural designs. For close to a decade, plans stalled, and children were sent to school in other neighborhoods.
"For far too long, we failed our children," Council President Frank Moran said Wednesday.
The Camden School Board initially opposed KIPP's 2012 proposal for Lanning Square but agreed to transfer the land to KIPP during a contentious meeting in which several members said they did not believe the district would ever secure funding for the long-promised school. Some Lanning Square residents felt that the vote was a betrayal and that the process was clouded by political influence.
"It was tough in the beginning," said Sheila Davis, a longtime Lanning Square activist who supported the school. "It was tough talking to parents about at-risk kids, getting them to understand the difference between charters and Renaissance schools. We needed them to understand that it wasn't about the mayor's administration - it was about the kids. We couldn't afford to keep losing kids, and this was about putting them at a level where they can compete."
Sean Brown, a former school board member who initially opposed the KIPP project but ultimately voted for it, said Wednesday that seeing the completed building felt bittersweet. So much time has passed since Lanning Square was torn down that many parents who send their kids to KIPP are unfamiliar with the history, he said. Others are so happy with the new school that they don't care.
"There's a lot of political weight behind this school being successful, and that's a good thing," he said. "Because it means there's no way this school isn't going to succeed. But it took rough dealmaking and bruised relationships and petty disagreements about what good schools are for us to get here."