In Camden, School Closures Revealed How Unequal the System Can Be
The New Jersey city was used as an experiment for improving schools by closing them; now, nearly a decade later, it’s become abundantly clear that this was a terrible idea.
During the Obama Administration, thousands of public schools were closed due to being deemed “low performing” because of their students’ test scores. This was part of Obama’s Race to the Top initiative, and it resulted in school closures in cities across the United States—including Chicago, Cleveland, New York City, and Philadelphia—in a misguided attempt to improve the education of Black and brown children.
In 2012, Race to the Top caught on in New Jersey, where state officials determined that twenty-three of Camden’s twenty-six traditional public schools were “failing.”
In 2012, Race to the Top caught on in New Jersey, where state officials determined that twenty-three of Camden’s twenty-six traditional public schools were “failing.” After taking over the Camden school district in 2013, state lawmakers made school closures their go-to strategy to remedy poor academic performance or budget shortfalls, despite the negative consequences school closures often led to.
Closing schools continues to be a popular “school improvement” strategy well into this new decade. But based on results in Camden, it’s clearly failed.
In January 2021, Camden Superintendent Katrina McCombs announced that four of Camden’s district schools would close to meet gaps in the district’s budget due to low enrollment and the poor conditions of those buildings. In March, that number was reduced to three schools.
Camden High School—a school with chronic student performance struggles—was not, however, among those that closed. Rather, new life was injected into the school when the New Jersey School Development Authority allocated $130 million for construction of a new building scheduled to open this fall. The previous structure that housed Camden High School, affectionately known as the Castle on the Hill, was demolished because district officials said the building was unsalvageable.
Based on pictures of the new Camden High School revealed on Facebook, the community of Camden students, parents, and educators destined for that school will likely be excited.
The gymnasium, hallways and classrooms look beautiful. Even some of the old architecture is seen throughout the new building. Certainly, this building should elicit an overall feeling of pride, as it is perceived as a testament to the genius of Camden students and the spirit of Camden High’s alumni.
But the building of this new structure has a bitter sweetness to it.
With a new building comes the reorganization of the city’s high schools, as the magnet high schools are going to be merged with Camden High School, becoming academies within Camden High School. And the city’s other high profile high school, Woodrow Wilson High, will not be a part of this reorganization.
One has to wonder what would have been possible if current and previous school closings had been avoided and neighborhood schools had been consolidated and possibly provided with new construction?
Such an idea is not entirely far-fetched.
Because of the Urban Hope Act, Renaissance Charter Schools have built new buildings for their students to take the place of traditional district schools that were closed. Tax dollars were used to fund those building projects, just as tax dollars were used to fund the new Camden High School building. The common denominator here is that the school district was under state control when all these decisions were made.
If the state felt it was important to keep Camden High School open while providing a new home, despite reduced enrollment in the district and budget gaps, why not do the same for other district schools?
Surely there were enough smart people statewide to figure something out.
For instance, they could have consolidated neighboring schools, so that students wouldn’t have too far to go for school, and kept those schools in neighborhoods where they were the only one, like Harry C. Sharp Elementary. They could have provided those schools with funds for new construction or building rehabilitation, like the $3.8 million given to Alfred Cramer College Preparatory Lab School for upgrades.
Nevertheless, Cramer is one of the schools scheduled to close.
There is a strong contingency of city residents and educators who desire for their schools to remain open and want to regain control of the district.
Regardless of the specifics of the district’s budget priorities, or district officials’ intentions, there is a strong contingency of city residents and educators who desire for their schools to remain open and want to regain control of the district.
Unfortunately, those folks didn’t receive the same grace as did those advocating that Camden High.
School remain open as a district-run school.
Maybe it was the rich history of Camden High School, or maybe it’s because of the school’s storied basketball program, currently the top-ranked team in the entire state. Whatever it was, it’s bittersweet to see one school rise as others fall.
Whether or not people understand the motives, intentions and behind the scenes actions of state and district officials, they can identify what it looks like when the state of New Jersey essentially picks and chooses which schools in the city to keep open and which ones to close.
It’s not that Camden High School deserves to be closed; rather, all schools deserve to be invested in with the kind of fervor that puts students first, particularly those who are traditionally underserved, marginalized and whose humanity fails to be affirmed.
It’s not that Camden High School deserves to be closed; rather, all schools deserve to be invested in with the kind of fervor that puts students first.
My hope is that in the future, district and state officials give the same consideration to schools that were given to Camden High School—that they act strategically, no longer compromising the existence of remaining traditional public schools.
If the argument for closing schools is about poor facilities, build new ones. If it’s about low enrollment, hold a moratorium on Renaissance Schools, or charter schools that take over “failing” schools, in the city. If it’s about closing a budget shortfall, reconsider why the state continues to spend money elsewhere despite its own fiscal challenges.
If it’s about academics, consider investing in measures to increase the academic performance of Black and Latinx students by hiring more Black and Latinx teachers, investing in culturally responsive curricula, and training teachers in culturally responsive pedagogy.
Closing schools isn’t the solution to helping a community struggling with its education outcomes. But opening a shiny new one isn’t necessarily the solution, either.