CAMDEN, NJ— To Wanda Tooentino and her eighth-grade classmates, the Veteran’s Memorial Family School is their second home. It’s their second family. So when they learned earlier this week of the Camden City School District’s [CCSD] decision to close the school for the 2019-20 school year, they felt a responsibility to the students in the grades below them to try and save the school.
Wanda and her eighth-grade classmates organized a protest Friday morning, where they and dozens of other students at Veteran’s Memorial Family School refused to go to class. Instead, they marched to the school district’s administration building to demand answers. The students were also joined by some parents and a handful of teachers who served as chaperones.
“We have little brothers and sisters here that are growing up in our footsteps,” Wanda said after the group of student protestors arrived back on the front lawn of the Veterans Memorial campus. “For the little kids, we’re like the adults. We’re their role models showing them that this is not right. We have to teach them to stand up for themselves.”
Wanda and her classmates Ziear Boyer and Govanni Arroyo also said they wanted to fight for their teachers, who they called their second parents.
“They make sure we’re safe, they make sure we eat. If there is a problem they talk to us one on one,” Wanda said.
“They fight for us, we fight for them,” said Ziear.
“I call this my home. This is our family. I want to be able to visit this school next year,” Govanni said.
On Wednesday, the school district announced that it will be closing Veterans Memorial School, the Bonsall Annex Preschool and consolidating others.
The decisions come as the district awaits the state’s decision on whether or not it will award the district emergency aid to close a $27 million budget gap — emergency aid that if not awarded, could result in up to 200 additional layoffs and the closure of up to seven additional schools.
"There has been a lot of investment in the district, so I’m hopeful that there would be further investment," Acting CCSD Superintendent Katrina McCombs told TAPinto Camden Thursday night.
However, the closure of Veterans Memorial Family School and Bonsall Annex Preschool, the consolidation of current students at R.T. Cream Family School into H.B. Wilson Elementary School and Creative Arts Morgan Village Academy and turning R.T. Cream into another early childhood development center are actions that the district is forced to take even if the district were to receive all of the emergency aid it requested.
“The reason we still have to move forward with school actions even if we get the $27 million is there are still other facilities costs that we’re chasing, there are still enrollment shifts that impact our bottom line. So we really, really need to be very careful and proactive,” McCombs said.
She said it would cost the district $14 million to make the necessary repairs needed to open Veterans in the fall.
“It was the cost for facility repairs, and also it was thinking about our bilingual community in the East Camden area and what can we do to create a dual language academy,” McCombs said.
Students at Veterans Memorial School will move to Davis Elementary School for the 2019-20 school year, and bilingual Veterans students in sixth through eighth grade will move to Cramer Elementary School, which will begin development for a dual language academy for students in kindergarten through eighth grade.
“Staff [at Cramer] has been trained in bilingual strategy, including the principal and the lead educator. They’re showing results,” McCombs said.
The acting superintendent added that the district hopes to eventually secure the funds needed to repair the 80-year-old building and reopen it to students. Earlier this year, the district submitted 13 applications to the New Jersey Schools Development Authority for $122 million in school repairs.
“We’re hoping to get the funds to really restore it and repair it,” McCombs said. “Our aim and hope is to keep the building and to be able to use it again. But at this current time, for a September opening, there are some things that we have to take care of, that if not would continue to just go further downhill and create an unsafe space for us.”
The district’s decision to close the school has been met with outrage from not only the students, but from their parents and the community at large. On Wednesday, when the news of the school closures was first made public, activists called for a freeze on school closures and layoffs and for investigations into “the collusion and collaboration with outside organizations to not adequately fund our public schools in order to boost the charter and renaissance schools.”
On Friday, parents who supported their students at the march called the decision unsurprising, unfair and upsetting.
Michael Burke, who has two children and sixth and seventh grade at Veterans, said he didn’t believe his daughter when she told him that the school was going to close. Then he saw the news on TV.
“I don’t think it's fair, not right now,” Burke said Friday. “I think if anything was going to happen, it should have been done at the beginning of the year. Now all of us are going to have to scramble to get our kids into another school, and then we’re not guaranteed that the other schools have space for our children.”
Clayton Gonzalez, whose son in the school’s pre-k program, also worried about where he would send his son to school next year.
“Some of the educators here are some of the educators that taught me,” Gonzalez said. “And are educators that I trust my child with, hence why my child is here. To find out they were closing, it upset me. If they close, I will have to go out of my way to take my child to the next public school — if not forced to put them into a charter school which is the closest thing to me next to Vets.”
Byheijja Sabree has put all of her six children into Camden’s traditional public schools. She said Friday that she was against the closing of the city’s traditional public schools.
“I’m not surprised by it, but it doesn’t mean that we’re going to be quiet about it either,” said Sabree, a member of the Camden Parents Union. The Camden Parents Union will be part of a larger group marching to Trenton next week to demand for equitable funding of public schools.
“This is the same story that happened with Whittier [elementary school], the same story that happened to Pyne Poynt [middle school] — the same story of saying the school buildings are uninhabitable, but then the next year turning around and selling them to charter schools,” Sabree said. “It’s all tied together with the gentrification of this city.”
On Thursday, McCombs said that while she understood there was mistrust in the community over the expansion of renaissance schools [public-charter hybrid schools operate with autonomy of a charter school, but unlike a charter school, must serve the students in its neighborhood] and how the Urban Hope Act [the legislation that created renaissance schools] came on board, the decision to close Veterans had nothing to do with feeding any other schools.
“This decision was not based on anything other than preserving the traditional public schools and the rich legacy that’s here,” McCombs said, noting her affinity for the very schools that she attended as a child growing up in Camden.
“I just want to make sure, as parents are making choices of school types, that our public schools are also a viable choice too. And this is the way to do it, by making sure we’re not operating too many buildings that we cannot afford to operate.”
“And that we are putting the money into resources and staffing and support that’s closest to the kids to help them close that achievement gap, because at the end of the day we have to really speak honestly about the achievement gap that still exists and the inequities that also exist”
“So we got to make tough decisions that for now are very excruciating and very difficult but they are being made for the future of the district.”
As part of the Urban Hope Act, the CCSD budget supports three different types of public schools — traditional public schools, renaissance school and charter schools — a fact that can be burdensome to the district’s public schools, McCombs said.
“It makes it difficult if the district has to shoulder the burden of some other costs like transportation for students who choose any type of school outside of their neighborhood. We incur the costs of that as well,” said McCombs. “So we do have to now kind of look at where we are, and what costs are fair for the district to carry because we’re all taking from the same pot of money.”
She added that in order to come up with a solution, there has to be a conversation between leaders from the three school types and the department of education on where do schools in Camden go from here.