CAMDEN, NJ — Superintendent Katrina McCombs said Tuesday the Camden City School District will need to close two to three school buildings in light of declining enrollment, no state aid funds, and other mitigating factors.

An official decision has not been made over which buildings will close nor how those students will be accommodated elsewhere in the city, but during the monthly school board meeting McCombs continued an ongoing long-term planning conversation.

After Harry C. Sharp Elementary and Cooper’s Poynt schools were brought up as possibilities for closures, at least two petitions have been launched garnering over 1,100 signatures so far.

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A number of students, parents, teachers and members of the public also chimed about that prospect during the public comments portion Tuesday.

“I don't think you should shut down Cooper's Poynt. It's a great school and is like my second home. We are like family there. I basically grew up in that school. I have been attending Cooper's Poynt my whole life and I love it there. When I first started going to school there, I was scared. I was five years old, and every single teacher I have ever had…taught me something over the years,” said 7th grader Olivia Reyes. 

Various speakers pointed out that Cooper’s Poynt is the only traditional district school in North Camden, saying its removal would be an even more devastating blow considering students are anxious to be reunited post-pandemic.

The district has previously said that if the proposed closures stand, Sharp and Cooper’s Poynt students could go to Veterans and Davis, respectively. Davis and Wiggins’ K-5 students could then be transferred to Catto and Forest Hill, respectively, while Big Picture Learning Academy’s 6-8 students could go to Wiggins. 

Faith Gibson, a teacher in the CCSD for the past 30 years said, “A parent is supposed to decide if they will put their child on a bus to be transported to another public school across town or attend a charter school in their North Camden neighborhood. Parents are not just choosing these non-traditional public schools over public schools, the public schools and their neighborhoods keep closing or conveniently being reopened as a mastery school…. We need all who are listening to support our public schools before there are none left.” 

“I think about how I started off as a toddler at this school and am now a preteen here. With this going on, it’s heartbreaking,” said 7th grade Sharp student Nydia Belfort. “If we lose this school, it won't ever be the same. I'll be attending a different school…I won't have the same connection to a new school than I do at Sharp. If this school gets taken away from me, I won't be able to complete my eighth grade year there.”

School advisory board members thanked students for letting their voices be heard on the topic. As did McCombs, who still indicated that without city or state intervention, a sustainable financial situation that also helps better the academic picture wouldn’t be possible without closures. 

The actual closings aren't expected until next year.

“If we're going to push the lever on academic gains if we're going to truly accelerate student achievement, and as a result the life outcomes of our students and community, then we will have to put the resources in the classroom,” McCombs said. “As I said before, where it is desperately needed our path, our only path to do that, after years of budget cuts, years of reducing staff, and tinkering around the edges, is to make these difficult decisions, which will include re-imagining our K-5 elementary schools, converting three schools to middle school academies, and also, unfortunately, closing two to three schools.” 

“These decisions do not mean that we value one school or community over another. Rather it is about ensuring long term success for our students and city,” McCombs said, noting that regaining local control is among the factors involved as well.

The school district says in the next five years it expects to spend $37.8 million in maintaining Woodrow Wilson High School alone.

In addition, $122 million in emergency and urgent project costs have been identified, according to forecasts presented by the superintendent during a public forum.

The CCSD’s enrollment, currently about 6,800 students, has been cut in half over the past five to eight years - impacted by the influx of charter and renaissance schools in the city. And yet the number of buildings, 19 at the moment, in operation have just declined by a third.

“Closing any District school should be a non-consideration,” Keith Benson, president of the teacher’s union Camden Education Association, wrote in during the meeting. “There are other options for the district to consider that are cost-effective. Closing schools should have never been part of this long range school planning discussion as the district was presented with other options as the new Camden High School opens.”

Felix Moulier, the lead organizer for the Sharp School petition, called closing an “asset” in the Camden district during a pandemic “deplorable.” 

“We've been here before with two attempts at closing our school, but we have successfully fought back each time,” said Moulier. “I am not anti-charter or renaissance, but I am totally against my choice being limited to a school I did not choose.”

School board member Elton Custis, parent and activist Sean Brown and others asked about any mechanisms available to consider closing a low-performing charter school.

“We as a district do not control the charter schools, there is an office of charter schools in Trenton, and they have the governance over whether or not charter schools open or close,” said McCombs in response. “However, of course, it is our duty and my personal aim to make sure that there is a knowledge of any conversations or any leverage that I can have…in this area to share if there are concerns about charters. So what I can say to you is that any concerns that we have, we do have a channel [by] which to share those concerns regarding other charters.”

The next public forum to discuss long-term planning is scheduled for Jan. 7, 2021. Registration is required. To learn more click here.

Watch Tuesday’s school board meeting below:

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