CAMDEN

Citywide Education Progress Report

Key Takeaways: June 2018

Since a state takeover in 2013, Camden has undergone a number of changes to improve the quality of schools and family access to different school options. A cornerstone of this strategy has been the city’s Renaissance schools, neighborhood schools operated in partnership with high-quality charter operators. Over the past several years, Camden has also invested in a unified enrollment system, intensive community outreach, and differentiated support for traditional district schools. Early results of Camden’s reforms have been promising, but the city’s education, nonprofit, and civic leaders must push forward on improving the quality of all schools—district, charter, and Renaissance—while maintaining families as key partners in the strategy.

STEPPING UP  >  CITIES  >  CAMDEN  >  OUTCOMES  |  REFORMS

System Reforms

Is the education strategy
rooted in the community?

System is responsive Good
Broad support Good
City engages families Good
Variety of groups Good

Do students have access
to 
a high-quality education?

Enrollment is working Good
Families have information Good
Strategic school supply Good
Transportation is working Developing
Array of school models Developing

Is the education system
continuously improving?

Right leaders Good  
Right teachers Developing  
Equitable funding Little in Place

Each indicator is scored with a rubric on a 4-point scale. We added the scores for the indicators to get an overall goal score. An arrow shows increase or decrease from the 2017 score.

Looking Deeper

Challenges Ahead

► Using a variety of strategies to continue district school improvement

At the end of the 2017-18 school year, the Camden City School District lost the only superintendent it has known since the state takeover in 2013. New leadership will reassess the city’s education strategy, but any plan forward must focus on traditional district schools, especially at the high school level. The district has already started to revamp curriculum, and has implemented a gifted and talented program for all its schools, along with career and college readiness supports in high schools. Local nonprofits have been involved in addressing the emotional and mental health needs of students. New district leadership should continue to push forward on a differentiated, wrap-around approach using district resources and nonprofit partners. The district should also improve advanced academic opportunities while meeting struggling students at their level. Given the success the district has seen with autonomous Renaissance schools, district leadership should also consider providing greater decisionmaking authority to a set of schools or all schools through greater budgeting flexibility.


► Being strategic about school expansion 

Interviewees and CRPE survey data have identified that families in Camden want curricular and instructional variety, not just academic rigor. With safe passage a concern in Camden, the placement of new schools and the expansion of grade levels must be strategic and centered on family demand for curricular variety. The district should involve all charter schools in strategic discussions and planning. But charter operators at stand-alone and Renaissance schools will need incentives and RFPs, not just information, to adjust growth plans to accommodate community need. And the city may benefit from having a local board to guide portfolio management decisions for district, charter, and Renaissance options.


► Developing avenues for school-based engagement

Directly engaging families has been a strength in Camden since the state takeover. And some schools, like Renaissance Mastery schools, are becoming an important part of the community by sharing resources, such as libraries and sports facilities. But identifying ways to improve the education experience citywide will require a more intentional effort to reach families in all schools. Parent/teacher organizations in many schools are underdeveloped. Interviewees report that families are not clear about how to access school leadership to discuss their concerns. Camden Enrollment and Parents for Great Camden Schools already work with families, so they are well-positioned to facilitate the development of more robust parent leadership teams. These teams can help families make sense of school quality information, train families in how to advocate for their student’s needs, and collect family concerns about citywide issues. This will be an invaluable resource for Camden moving forward—an engaged community will inform system leaders of percolating issues, such as problems with school disciplinary processes. Families would also be informed partners in the city’s push for improvement.

Spotlight

Nonprofit’s New Trauma Model Key to Student Success 

An unassuming row house in Camden has been training youth in coding for nearly two decades. The young people who come to Hopeworks Camden are 17 to 25 years old: dropouts, victims of violence, or struggling to stay in college or jobs. After a short training, youth are placed in an internship with one of Hopeworks enterprises or internship partners. At the end of the internship, Hopeworks places interns with local employers. If youth want to go to college instead, Hopeworks staff are on hand to help them navigate the process.

But for many years, two-thirds of all youth would finish their training only to drop out of the internship, job, or college courses.

After looking at their low success rate, leadership pivoted to focus on students and their experiences. To do that, the nonprofit added new staff roles and changed how services were delivered so that everything—from tech training to employment support—was infused with a trauma-informed approach.

Now, when youth come to the row house for training classes, Hopeworks asks how they are doing and what kind of support they need. Since incorporating a trauma model into their education programming, Hopeworks’ success rates have risen to 90%, which means students complete their internship and go on to college or a job. Companies are coming to the nonprofit asking to be internship partners. The director, Dan Rhoton, says there is no secret sauce: “Connecting with kids where they are, helping them heal, and giving them skills. That’s it—that’s the whole trick.”


Boundary Spanner Supports Ambitious District Projects, Elevates Families’ Concerns

In Camden, one former little league organizer is now helping families be part of the strategy to improve the city’s education.

The parent-led and staffed nonprofit, Parents for Great Camden Schools (PGCS), does advocacy work with charter, district, and Renaissance school families. The group has a close working relationship with the district and the families it represents. Its unique positioning allows PGCS to act as a boundary spanner between education leaders and family members.

PGCS has supported some of the district’s more controversial moves, such as demolishing and rebuilding Camden High School. PGCS also elevates concerns that are percolating in the community. In 2018, the group helped families make sense of growth versus proficiency rates in a city where most schools are still at less than 10% proficiency across all grade levels.

The group also helps families navigate the choice process, but staff say they need many more boots on the ground to do the one-on-one outreach necessary to help families understand the options available to them.

Student and School Outcomes

School proficiency rates in reading improved across the city, relative to the state. Graduation rates also improved, and student sub-groups enrolled in high school advanced math coursework at similar rates as the high school population. However, both proficiency and graduation rates remain far below state averages.

► Between 2011-12 and 2014-15, the proficiency gap between the city and state was closing in reading. In 2014-15, the city’s proficiency rate was 25 percentage points below the state’s.

► The city’s graduation rate has been increasing, although in 2014-15 it still lagged behind the state’s.

Data are for all charter and district schools within the municipal boundary. Graduation data from EDFacts and performance data from the New Jersey Department of Education. See Methodology & Resources for more detail.

Background

About Camden

In 2012, Camden schools had some of the worst student outcomes in New Jersey: not one school among the city’s 26 was meeting state standards. In 2013, the New Jersey Department of Education took over the district. Camden launched a unified enrollment and information system, Camden Enrollment, to provide families with better information and access to school options. To improve school quality, low-performing district schools joined in partnership with high-quality charter operators who manage these “Renaissance” schools as neighborhood district schools.

School Choice in the City

All of the city’s schools are available for choice, although students are guaranteed a seat at their neighborhood school. By law, Renaissance schools must give preference to neighborhood students.

Governance Model

The New Jersey Department of Education manages the city’s district schools and authorizes all charter schools.

2015 District and Charter Student Body

Enrollment: 14,975 students
Race and ethnicity: 54% Hispanic, 44% black, 1% white, 1% other
Low-income: 89% free and reduced-price lunch

2017 School Composition 

Source: Enrollment data from the New Jersey Department of Education, 2014-15.
School data from researcher analysis of public records, 2016-17.

The Center on Reinventing Public Education is a research and policy analysis center at the University of Washington Bothell developing systemwide solutions for K–12 public education. Questions? Email crpe@uw.edu.