It was difficult for the Camden school board to reverse itself and approve a Renaissance school. But it made the right decision for the children of the struggling district.
The board has given its blessings to the same Knowledge Is Power Program (KIPP) proposal it narrowly rejected in September, with only minor changes.
The decision last week was the best possible outcome for the Lanning Square neighborhood, which will finally get a new school. For years, that neighborhood has wanted to replace an elementary school that was closed in 2002. Several board members acknowledged that the KIPP proposal was likely the only way that a new school would be built.
The board's action clears the way for the latest experiment in New Jersey to fix urban public education with a new approach that assumes authority from the local school board.
Under the Urban Hope Act, passed by the Legislature last year, school boards in Camden, Trenton, and Newark were authorized to approve up to four charter-style Renaissance schools. Private companies build the schools, and the district provides them with up to 95 percent of the amount it would have spent on each student had the student remained in a regular public school.
So far, only Camden has followed up on the legislative measure, and it did so reluctantly, with understandable concerns that Renaissance schools represent another nail in the coffin for traditional public schools.
Many urban districts such as Camden's appear to be following in the footsteps of New Orleans, where three-quarters of the Louisiana city's schools are now charters operated by a variety of entities, including KIPP. Its first New Orleans school opened in 2005. Today, KIPP New Orleans Schools has more than 3,200 students on eight campuses.
KIPP serves nearly 32,000 students nationwide in 109 schools in 20 states and the District of Columbia. In Philadelphia, KIPP serves kindergarten and first grade at KIPP Philadelphia Elementary Academy; grades 5-8 at KIPP Philadelphia Charter School; grades 5-7 at KIPP West Philadelphia Preparatory Charter School; and grades 9-10 at KIPP DuBois Collegiate Academy.
The KIPP proposal for Camden was submitted by a partnership of the Norcross Foundation Inc., a charity created by the family of State Sen. Donald Norcross (D., Camden) and his brother George E. Norcross 3d; the charitable foundation of Cooper University Hospital, which George Norcross chairs; and KIPP, one of the nation's largest charter operators. George Norcross is also a managing partner of the company that owns The Inquirer.
New Jersey state education officials must now approve the Camden KIPP proposal, and the privately run school must agree to a contract with the Camden board.
The board also turned down three other Renaissance proposals. It should review them to determine if they have merit. Thousands of children trapped in Camden's system deserve a chance for a better education. But that doesn't mean efforts to fix traditional public schools should end.