This story is the third in a series of profiles highlighting Camden public school leaders. The first focused on Early Childhood Development Center (ECDC) Principal Loray Vaughan. The second profiled Mastery Molina Upper Elementary School Principal Rickia Reid. The third profiled Cooper’s Poynt Family School Principal Janine CasellaThe series is sponsored by the Camden Education Fund.

CAMDEN NJ – As a student growing up in Pennsauken, Joshua Rivera knew he wanted to help people and serve his community.

He thought law enforcement was the way to go. Hence, Rivera – the high school principal at Freedom Prep Charter School – got his bachelor’s degree in criminal justice from Rutgers-Camden.

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But, Rivera says as his 2010 college graduation approached “my perspective began to change. I began to shift my focus from supporting my community in a reactive fashion, to working more proactively with the youth.”

He went on to get a Master’s in education from Kutztown University in Pennsylvania; and taught high school math and history in Philadelphia before landing a similar teaching position at Freedom Prep seven years ago.

Today, 32-year-old Rivera is in his second year as Freedom Prep’s high school principal and in his seventh year at the Atlantic Avenue charter school.   

“I firmly believe that authentic change begins with those who will lead our communities in the future,” Rivera says. “Leading this school allows me to work with a team that is invested in cultivating leadership, empathy and a strong work ethic among our students.”

That also describes Freedom Prep’s mission and goals.

Freedom Prep opened in the 2004-05 with just fifth grade students. It has grown into a K-12 charter school of roughly 850 pupils, with about 325 enrolled in its high school.Adapting to Student-Needs

Rivera says one of Freedom Prep’s strengths is its flexibility, easily adapting its curriculum and services to meet its students’ academic and personal needs.

“We are highly individualized. We consistently reexamine our curriculum and approach based on what our students need, not based on available resources or staff,” Rivera explains. He quickly points to a number of examples:

  • College counseling support is tailored to meet the needs of students, assisting students who wish to attend summer programs prior to college; helping with early decision/early action applications for colleges, and providing test prep programming for 11th and 12th graders.
  • Student support team often visits homes to deliver food, computers, Wi-Fi devices, chargers, and they provide wrap-around services to meet student and family’s needs.
  • Freedom Prep has worked diligently to accommodate its growing number of Spanish-speaking students. Since 2017-18, its number of “English Language Learners,” has steadily risen from 15-percent of its pupils to roughly 21-percent.

Rivera Sets Some Goals

Among Rivera’s short-term goals at Freedom Prep is building a stronger foundation in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) education in early grades to better prepare students for high school and beyond.

And he plans to make more advance placement (AP) courses available for high schoolers. The school already offers AP courses in literature, American history and government. There are plans to add AP computer science and advanced anatomy to the curriculum

Rivera also looks forward to resuming international trips for 11th and 12th graders. Freedom Prep’s trips abroad were paused during the COVID-19 pandemic, but he said there’s hope they will continue in the 21-22 school year.

Ordinarily, the school offers three trips abroad during April of each school year for 12 to 24 eligible students. In previous years, Freedom Prep students have traveled to places like South Korea, Ecuador and South Africa.

The purpose, Rivera explains, “is to provide travel experience for students before they enter the real world after graduation. We want our students to be able to speak from personal experience as they communicate with peers at college or the workplace.”

Students are not just sightseeing. “Our students participate in volunteer service, such as restoring school buildings and beautification projects,” Rivera explains.

And, since the foreign language that is offered at Freedom Prep is Korean, “students can study Korean for 2-3 years before they visit South Korea and have a chance to communicate in Korean with native speakers.”

Rivera, a Pennsauken native who graduated from its public schools, says by comparison to his own high school experience, Freedom Prep is more proactive and responsive to its students. “It’s great to work with so many others who care about our students as people. We check-in on them to find out how they’re doing in school and at home. We help them to set and achieve their goals for the future.”