In March of 2013, NBC’s Brian Williams devoted a segment of Rock Center to the struggles of the citizens of Camden, New Jersey—a city that’s been labeled in recent years as both the poorest and most dangerous in the United States. Williams, who at the time of the broadcast said he’d been studying Camden for a number of years, described the city as one people take “great pains to avoid” because of its many and well-documented troubles.
Just a few weeks ago, CNN reported again that 40% of Camden’s residents live below the poverty line (the median household income is just $26,000), homelessness and unemployment continue to be a problem, and the drug epidemic is so prevalent that police reported a drastic spike in heroin overdoses twice during the month of March.
There is little disagreement that among the most vulnerable citizens in a city like Camden are the children–yet there are many conflicting ideas regarding how to improve conditions for such at-risk kids. An abundance of research exists which shows a correlation between the conditions of poverty and a child’s ability to succeed in school, an observation that seems to be common sense to anyone who has even the most basic understanding of the harsh realities of inner-city life. Just last week, The Philadelphia Inquirer’s Alfred Lubrano, who has written extensively about the effects of poverty, published a column in which he cited a NYU sociologist’s recent findings: that “children living in areas where homicides are committed have lower reading and verbal test scores.” Yet some self-proclaimed education “reformers” effectively minimize–even ignore–the impact poverty has on children living in its grasp.
So what, exactly, should be done to improve conditions for Camden’s children, many of whom are confronted with the realities of poverty, homelessness, violence, and drug abuse each day? Close neighborhood schools, fire hundreds of veteran teachers who have devoted their professional careers to working with high-needs children, and hire a flock of new, inexperienced teachers who’ll probably stick around for a couple of years before they move on to their “real” careers, of course!
At least that’s what Camden State Superintendent Paymon Rouhanifard, whose successful career in
teaching finance began when he joined Teach for America, seems to think will help make things better for Camden’s children. Yes, Rouhanifard plans to lay off nearly 400 district employees–and given that the district has just (without DOE approval) arranged to open charters run by Uncommon and Mastery, we can all assume that with these changes will come a new influx of young, untrained Teach for America corps members. Just what kids living in poverty need!
And don’t look now, but the Teach for America Greater Philadelphia job posting page just listed lots of positions in Camden, many of which are–shocking!–elementary school Mastery positions. The district is even looking for an Analyst in the Office of Talent Management (that’s TFA-talk) to support the “Camden Commitment” and manage all that “human capital!”
So as typically happens with a charter takeover, 6th grade teachers at Pyne Poynt learned suddenly that they’ll lose their positions when Mastery assumes responsibility for that grade level in the next academic calendar year. (See picture below; the school will operate as a hybrid until the current students are phased out, and 7th and 8th grade teachers will learn their fate in May.) But don’t worry: if you’re a veteran 6th grade teacher at Pyne Poynt whose position cannot be “guaranteed” for the 2014-2015 school year, the district will provide you “assistance with finding new locations,” opportunities to attend “transfer fairs,” and even “resume writing and interviewing workshops.” How courteous of the district!
Back to Mastery for a second. Mastery Charter Schools, along with ASPIRA, runs Renaissance schools in Philadelphia. The charter chain’s presence is drawing criticism from all angles: parents complain that Mastery’s scheduled takeover of Steel Elementary was orchestrated without community notification/input; students complain about its harsh “zero tolerance” disciplinary policies; and PFT president Jerry Jordan calls the district’s funding decisions, particularly the notion that only if parents vote to convert their schools to charters will the district receive an additional $4,000 in per-student funding, “criminally negligent”:
“The audacity of the district’s proposal to the school communities at Marin and Steel is stunning,” PFT president Jerry Jordan said in a statement. “To continually deny these schools much-needed resources as they dangle millions of dollars in front of parents borders on the criminally negligent.”
As part of changes this year to the Renaissance process – which has converted 20 schools to charters in four years – parents get to vote May 1 on whether the schools will become Renaissance charters or remain district-managed. It comes with a caveat, however: Renaissance charters receive nearly $4,000 more per student – money the district said would not likely be available if parents vote against the charter operator and in favor of an in-house transformation plan.
And as charter chains continue to usurp local authority in urban areas across the country, one glaring question remains: why should outsiders–many of whom have very little experience in education–be able to impose sweeping educational changes without community consent in cities whose primary educational problems stem directly from the effects of poverty?
Though the situation in Camden isn’t yet quite as contentious as the one in Newark (primarily because Newark’s schools have been under state control for almost 20 years–and also because Camden’s Rouhanifard is generally perceived to be less abrasive, insensitive, and offensive than Newark’s Anderson), a fundamental similarity between the two cities is glaring: if left unchecked, the combination of charter school expansion and increasing teacher/administrative inexperience will continue to divide and segregate both already-volatile communities.
Children in struggling urban areas will only be truly successful when politicians and policymakers resolve to improve the societal conditions that make it difficult for students to reach their full potential. Importing inexperienced outsiders whose sole task is to raise test scores, often at the expense of real learning, is simply not the answer.
More to come on Camden.
*See Newark mayoral candidate Ras Baraka’s Education Blueprint for an example of a comprehensive, city-based plan that seeks to improve living conditions for all citizens in order to improve children’s educational experiences.