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With few students in an aging building, a Camden school is closing

District officials say declining enrollment and a crumbling building led to decision to close Sumner Elementary School.

Camden's Sumner Elementary School will close at the end of this school year, district officials said this week, citing poor building conditions and enrollment that has dropped by almost half in recent years.

Sumner, in the city's Liberty Park section, serves 210 students in kindergarten through sixth grade, district spokesman Brendan Lowe said. The school is half a mile from two other public schools, H.B. Wilson Elementary and R.T. Cream, which serve students in kindergarten through sixth grade and eighth grade, respectively.

Students enrolled in Sumner will be guaranteed seats at Cream, Lowe said, as well as at one of two public-charter hybrid "Renaissance" schools, Camden Prep or KIPP Cooper Norcross Academy, but the district will work with families on deciding which of the city's schools is best for each student. Officials also hope to move many of Sumner's 57 full-time staff members with the Sumner students, Lowe said.

"As difficult as a school closure is, I truly believe both students and staff will be better situated next year," said Paymon Rouhanifard, superintendent of the state-run school district. "This will put them on a better track."

Rouhanifard was hired by Gov. Christie in 2013, the year the state took over the long-struggling district. Since then Rouhanifard has presided over dramatic changes, namely the creation of eight Renaissance schools.

Renaissance schools are publicly funded but privately operated. Unlike charter schools, they guarantee seats to every child in the school's neighborhood, and by law must operate in new or renovated buildings. They also have contracts with the district mandating services such as special education.

In 2015, Rouhanifard turned over five traditional public schools to Renaissance operators — a decision he said was motivated in part by an urgency to get students into better facilities.

In Camden, where many buildings are woefully outdated, Rouhanifard has said turning schools over to Renaissance operators results in faster renovations, since they can secure construction work without a public bidding process. The KIPP Cooper Norcross Academy in Lanning Square, a Renaissance school, was built in under two years, after residents of the neighborhood spent more than a decade lobbying the state for a new school.

This fall, the state Schools Development Authority will begin the demolition and reconstruction of Camden High School, almost a decade after lawmakers first approved funding for the project.

Camden's Renaissance schools, which operate under Mastery, KIPP, and UnCommon, now serve about 2,700 students, leaving about 8,100 students in the city's 20 traditional public schools. An additional 5,000 students attend charters, Lowe said.

Some in Camden have questioned how long the city's traditional public schools can continue operating, given the rate at which Renaissance schools are siphoning students away. The Renaissance schools offer brand-new buildings that are impossible for many parents to refuse, said Camden teacher and community activist Keith Benson, regardless of whether the school is the right choice academically.

"The district acts as though declining enrollment is something that is happening organically," Benson said. "The reality is that they're facilitating a drop in the enrollment."

District officials, however, said that there was no one factor responsible for the problems at Sumner and that students were going elsewhere before Renaissance schools opened. The 1926-era building, built for almost 500 students, has recurring floods and other issues, and over the years a number of students transferred to Cream or Wilson, Lowe said, which have newer facilities.

Rouhanifard has sought community feedback for some decisions, such as a recent proposal to merge Harry C. Sharp, one of the city's best-performing schools, with the Davis Family school. Following concerns from families, students, and city officials, the district decided against it.

In the case of Sumner, Rouhanifard said he thought most teachers and parents would not be surprised to learn the school's fate.

"Sumner has been dealing with more significant challenges than other schools," he said. "This will ultimately put students in a much better position."