The Gentrification of Camden's Schools: Cutting $72M from Public Education, Providing $72M to Charters

Denise Baker, principal of UrbanPromises CamdenForward School in Camden (Flickr)

gentrification-noun 1. the buying and renovation of houses and stores in deteriorated urban neighborhoods by upper- or middle-income families or individuals, thus improving property values but often displacing low-income families and small businesses.

In Part I of my interview with Camden educator Keith Benson we talked about his views on the state takeover, what his students face on a daily basis, and whether he thinks the charters coming into the city can truly address the needs of children living in chronically high poverty. Part II is at the end of this post.

Camden has been in the news a lot lately. Earlier this week on her show, Radio Times, Marty Moss-Coane of Philadelphia's public broadcasting station, WHYY, interviewed David Sciarra, Executive Director of New Jersey's Education Law Center, Stephen Danley, Assistant Professor of Public Policy and Administration at Rutgers University, who also writes the Local Knowledge Blog, and Carmen Crespo, parent activist and member of the grassroots pro-public education group Save Our Schools NJ about the separate and unequal state takeover of Camden's public schools. Last month she interviewed Camden Superintendent Paymon Rouhanifard, the TFA alum and former Chief Strategy and Innovation Officer of Newark Public Schools.

The public outcry against the decimation of public education in the poorest, most dangerous city in the country has been well documented here, here, here, here and here. There is much more, and I encourage readers to search for themselves.

Notice that all but the WHYY link are to blogs, and there are more blog links below. Apartheid is alive and well in New Jersey and around the country, as scores of black and brown children living in high poverty are being discriminated against, their schools closed, their neighborhoods up-ended, and their voices silenced. And yet the mainstream media is perfectly content to ignore it while rolling out the red carpet for Campbell Brown. And if you're reading this and still have no idea who she is and what she's up to, start here.
But I digress. When last we left Keith, we were just starting to talk about Bing Howell and his 'portfolio management' plan for Camden's schools, which Keith calls "racist, insulting and exploitative".

Who is Bing Howell?

Kevin Shelly of the Courier-Post describes* the former Broadie (what's a 'Broadie?' this may help to explain for non edu-professionals) former NJDOE 'reformer,' and architect of the Camden School District's 'Renaissance' thusly:

Howell serves as a liaison to Camden for the creation of four Urban Hope Act charter schools. He reports directly to the deputy commissioner of education, Andy Smerick. Howell's proposal suggests that he oversee the intervention through portfolio management - providing a range of school options with the state, not the district, overseeing the options. He would be assisted by Rochelle Sinclair, another DOE employee. Both Howell and Sinclair are fellows of the Los Angeles-based Broad Foundation.**

Please take a moment to peruse the intervention proposal, aka: 'portfolio management' plan. No where does it say anything about how to address individual students' needs. No where does it say anything about addressing poverty, post traumatic stress disorder, hunger, homelessness, lead poisoning, fetal alcohol syndrome, autism, dyslexia, language barriers, physical and mental abuse, and all the other issues children living in chronically high poverty endure. No where does it address the crumbling infrastructure in some of Camden's schools. But it does say plenty about decreasing the number of 'seats' in traditional public schools and increasing the number of 'seats' in charters and nonpublic schools:

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Numbers don't lie. They don't want to improve public education; they want to improve 'choice', aka 'options'. But as we've seen time and again in one high poverty city after another, in one charter school after another, 'choice' does not equal 'access'. Oh, there can be choices, and parents can have access to those choices as in, they can mark an 'X' on an application to several schools and hope they get in to one, or hope they hold the winning lottery ticket to the shiny new charter school (can I buy one at the corner store?), but the chances their child will actually gain access to that charter, will actually step foot inside and remain there until graduation are dependent on a whole host of criteria way down in the fine print that's printed with invisible ink.

And here's what Keith has to say about it all:

The new state-appointed superintendent, Paymon Rouhanifard, has just completed his first full school year at the helm. What changes did you notice under his leadership?

I know the superintendent pretty well. He's a very smart and likable man. Having said that, I don't know whether he has direct control over the direction the Renaissance Schools and that process are heading. I don't know if it's a reflection of what he, specifically, would like to have done. That was put into motion well before he got here with the Urban Hope Act and the portfolio management plan that was laid out in 2011 by Bing Howell, who is now in Tennessee.

The plan is insulting, racist, exploitative and marginalizing. The community has been shut out, and it's not going to benefit students one bit. When you look at some of the curriculum and pedagogy that they've put online, some of it is absolutely dreadful. And I would never have my child in a school that does any of those things. They're not creative, they're rote, they're 'no excuses', there are no opportunities for students to develop their own individual self interests. And you combine that with the fact that the 3 charter operators can open up to 5 schools each, that affects a lot of students.

I find it insulting that, out of all the excellent graduate schools of education in the state, they're handing over our professional development to Relay, which was started by the founders of KIPP and Uncommon, and which has absolutely no experience in dealing with our population of students. The fact that they can give professional development to public school educators shows just how much of a foothold these private, charter operators have gained in our district-a district where the public has been silenced and pushed aside for years. The citizens have no way to address their grievances concerning this.

For more on the new professional development plan, see this post by blogger Ani McHugh (aka TeacherBiz).

Does the board still hold public meetings? Are parents and community member still going to meetings and speaking out?

Yes. It's been increasingly contentious. It's unfortunate, but that's what happens when you have a board of education that is completely beholden to the mayor's and superintendent's agenda. There are no checks and balances which exist in other school districts with elected boards. And that's what I find particularly disturbing. In mostly wealthy, mostly white, suburban districts the community has a lot of input into how their schools are run, but because we are poor and minority, we aren't afforded that same right. That screams racism. And some folks find that practice acceptable.

Now that these charters are scheduled to open in the fall, what cuts have you seen in the public schools?

Our budget has been cut by $72 million and coincidentally $72 million has been allocated to the charter schools. So, our district's budget has been decimated and educators laid off, and at the same time, the charter budget has exploded. It's not hard to connect the dots.

How is your association working with all of these changes? Is the central office staff listening to the concerns of the educators?

I can't speak to how much or if the superintendent's office is listening, I can just comment that, based on our board of ed meetings, when members of the superintendent's staff are there, they are 'hearing' us, but it doesn't appear they are really 'listening'. We take the time to make meaningful comments and we just get these blank stares back. I'm really not sure what happens when our association leaders speak with them in private, but that's what happens in public. I know our association president is trying to work with Rouhanifard, and at the same time also trying to save jobs. It's a delicate dance and I don't think our association-and the NJEA for that matter-are doing enough to address this emergency. Public education in Camden is dying, and the hands of the Camden Education Association are kind of tied because the NJEA endorsed the Urban Hope Act. Unfortunately that leaves our educators and our schools on an island where no one is really in a position to defend us, so we kind of have to do whatever we think we can to save our students.

Note: While the NJEA originally supported the Urban Hope Act because it was going to be a pilot program with one experimental school that would be part of Cooper Medical Center, the program exploded, and it soon became clear that the charter schools were discriminating against students who are the most challenging, and therefore most expensive, to educate. In response to recent proposed changes to the act, which greatly expand the scale and scope of the charter schools, President Wendall Steinhauer issued a strongly worded statement including this:

"The original legislation enacted in 2012 was never intended to give private operators a blank check to take over buildings, skim off higher-achieving students and drain the resources of the Camden schools in the process," he said. "Passage of this legislation expands the existing law, enabling the massive corporate takeover of the Camden Public Schools."

NJEA opposed the latest legislation, which passed both houses of the Legislature in late June, because it would greatly expand the scope of the 2012 law.  It would open the door to Mastery and Uncommon, which, in other cities, have siphoned off scarce resources from the public schools. The governor's conditional veto would eliminate an early retirement incentive in the bill, which would have mitigated the impact of school closures on Camden school employees and their families. Hundreds of teachers and staff have already been laid off as the district expands the number of charter schools.

Play armchair superintendent: If you were running the school district, what would you do to help the students in Camden get the best educational experience they possibly can?

A pedagogy of care and love is of utmost import. I would stress the need for our educators to have a very close and loving relationship with their students, to go out of their way to show students they care because until a student believes you care about them, your message isn't going to get through to them. The substantive learning can take place after that.

I would also put additional money into the supplemental wrap-around services that we discussed earlier. Making sure students are getting the counseling, the food, the extra support to help alleviate the blocks that make attending school difficult. More social services-a lot more social services, things that focus on the whole child-not just the student.

And then there would be a lot less testing, because we test kids here like you wouldn't believe. We have end-of-unit testing every quarter. We have MAP testing twice a year. In addition to juniors and seniors taking the HSPA. And now there will be more with the PARCC testing starting this school year. There is so much testing that the classes get fragmented because you get into a groove in teaching and learning then suddenly you have to stop for testing. Things happen in fits and starts, and that's not the way classrooms are supposed to operate. It's disruptive to the learning process.

I would also encourage, and beg and implore the community to be authentically involved in the direction of the district. The kids represent the city. They are part of the city. They live here, so without parental and community input, you're not engaging the constituency you're here to serve.  

Love, care, community involvement and supplemental services: if you take care of those things, it's a lot easier to educate. We have to treat students as people first.

Exactly. You have to build up the infrastructure first. When the U.S. goes into poor or war-ravaged countries and helps to rebuild them, we don't start at the top and work our way down; we start with the foundations, the infrastructure, the roots, and build people and communities up. When we build schools in those countries, we don't implement relentless testing, and exclude students. It continually amazes me that 'reformers' refuse to see that high poverty students need so much more than a test or sitting in a straight row or keeping their shirt tucked in to help them succeed.

Absolutely, because if we're being really honest, this education 'reform' movement is not about helping students succeed, it's about helping private corporations get access to public dollars. And this has been an effort that has been underway since the 1980's. And they've finally figured out a way to get it done. This is not about improving education.

We have buildings like Trenton High School that are literally falling down around students, that are unsafe and impede their ability to learn, and we have no money to fix them, yet we can pull funding from these school districts to give to charter schools. What's the infrastructure like in Camden's school buildings?

I don't know... sometimes I think I've become immune to all the problems. I just don't see them anymore. Many of our buildings, like Woodrow Wilson and Camden High, were built in the early 1900's so you expect certain things need fixing. There are certainly some issues here, and I believe there are plans to address them in the future. It remains to be seen what will happen.

Any parting thoughts?

I really think it's telling that if improving education is the goal, why aren't education practitioners involved? How come we aren't consulted as to what schools and students need? Even education researchers are not consulted. Business people are. And these people along with those who run the charters make a whole lot of money.  

If you wanted to improve the educational outcomes of students in this area, how would it make sense to bring in the most inexperienced people to teach our students? In no other profession or industry would that exist. If I have a medical issue, I wouldn't want the most inexperienced doctor to work on me. I don't think anyone would. We want the most experienced doctors. Why isn't it the same when we talk about educating our children?  

The answer is very simple, folks. In a town that has seen so much hate, educators know that this is what students need to truly be able to learn, and it doesn't cost a penny...

Many thanks to all the incredible bloggers and activists who continue to shine a light on the racist and discriminatory practices of ed 'reform'. Those whose work I linked into this post include (in no particular order): Ani McHugh (aka TeacherBiz), Jersey Jazzman, Diane Ravitch, Stephen Danley, Education Law Center, Save Our Schools, EduShyster, Anthony Cody and Blue Jersey.

* Note: The original link to Shelly's Courier-Post piece is down. The link above is to a post from Jersey Jazzman who quotes extensively from it.
** Howell left that post at NJDOE to work for 5 months as HR director of the Camden-based Regional Achievement Center (RAC). He then left for a position in the Tennessee DOE's Office of School Improvement.

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