In my new role as executive director of Parents for Great Camden Schools, I have the privilege of talking to families about their hopes and dreams for their children. 

The mission of our organization is in its name: we want to empower parents to advocate for great Camden schools.  

When you ask parents what a “great” school is, you’ll hear a variety of answers. 

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My perspective on this question took on a new meaning last winter. In January, my daughter was offered a scholarship to a top tier liberal arts college.  When I talk to families about great schools now, what I mean is helping them feel that same mixture of pride, joy, and gratitude that I felt when my daughter got that acceptance letter. 

Prior to working at PGCS, I served as an outreach manager at Camden Enrollment helping families enroll in district, charter, and renaissance schools, and in pre-K programs across the city. I believe parents should have the right to pick the school that is the best fit for their child - regardless of type - because I have seen the value of different school types firsthand.  

My children have attended district schools, renaissance schools, and county vocational schools. My sister’s children are home-schooled. I have nieces and nephews at charter schools.

We all do what’s right for us.

The value of school choice seemed so obvious that I didn’t even realize there was “another side” of the debate until years later. 

But once I did, I realized it wasn’t good enough to help families access the school of their choice; I wanted to organize parents to fight for even more great options and protect their right to choose a school.   

The good news is that Camden schools have made tremendous progress over the last several years, and we have better options than ever before: We’ve added strong renaissance schools to our school choices; we’ve made it easier for families to select the school that's right for them; we've improved school facilities across the city; and we have the new Camden High School to look forward to this summer. 

This is a great start, but we still have a long way to go to achieve the kind of academic excellence our families deserve.  

Today, the District is at a crossroads. 

There’s a structural budget deficit that is forcing Superintendent McCombs to make tough decisions. To her credit, she has been open and honest about the options and has built a long term planning process to solicit feedback from community members.   

I’ve been an advocate for parents and students for years and have been through school closures before, and I’ve never experienced a process as lengthy and transparent as this one. 

We held 6 meetings, 2 community input forums, and (through phone banking and emails) heard feedback from over 100 residents, and I served on a committee alongside 50 other community leaders.  

The most important thing I heard during these meetings was Superintendent McCombs’ vision that long-term school planning would ensure more resources and better services for our students in the District.  

When the Superintendent announces the final plan next week, I will hold District leadership and the Board accountable to the promises they’ve made. I’ll also be pushing where our parents need it. I’ll start by encouraging them to consider the following: 

First, transportation. 

If some parents will soon be required to travel a much further distance to school, it’s essential that the district accommodate them with transportation. Parents understandably have concerns about safety and convenience. 

Some parents have children in multiple schools, others have jobs with unusual hours, and others don’t have access to a car.  It’s unfair to place the burden on school transportation entirely on families.  

Second, students with disabilities. 

Change is disruptive for all students, but it’s particularly challenging for our students with disabilities.  

It’s important that the district recognize this and that District staff reach out to parents of students with disabilities to assure them that the services in their child’s IEP will be provided at their new school.  Staff could also connect parents with members of the Child Study Team at their new school. 

The good news is that parents of students with disabilities are natural advocates, because they are so used to fighting to ensure their students receive services they are entitled to. 

And we will be here to support them.

Third, students who are English Language Learners.

Families already have many obstacles to overcome because of language barriers. Communications, resources, and services should be made available to parents in multiple languages as soon as changes are announced to dissuade any fears and clear up any uncertainties for our most vulnerable students.

If the District’s plan is successful, schools will have more resources and more services for kids.  

More is needed because schools must go that extra mile for kids. 

My daughter had to climb a mountain to get that scholarship. She had the help of amazing nonprofits like TeenSHARP; she attended Camden County Technical School for high school, she built her educational resume by being involved in extracurricular programs, volunteer efforts, and maintaining honor roll throughout her school career.   

Every child’s experience will be different, but every child deserves to have the support and experience that my child had. As a nonprofit leader, Camden resident, and proud mother of a Camden public schools graduate and three other students in Camden schools, I am eager to fight for families, one college acceptance letter at a time.  

Shirley Irizarry is the Executive Director of Parents for Great Camden Schools