In just a few weeks, Uncommon Schools Camden Prep High School will open in a new state of the art building on the corner of Copewood Street and Haddon Avenue with a founding class of ninth graders and a principal with a proven track record of ensuring students not only get to college, but through it.
Syrena Burnam has been an educator for 18 years, and has spent the past 8 years perfecting her craft at Uncommon’s North Star Academy in Newark, first as a teacher of Advanced Placement Biology, then as Department Chair, and then as the Dean of Curriculum and Instruction.
Under her leadership, she helped lead more students to get excited about science, technology, engineering and math, which led to more North Star graduates majoring in STEM studies in college where they are most likely to excel in post-college success given where the jobs of tomorrow are.
Burnam, herself a graduate of Yale University, had once thought she’d go into the medical research field and work in a lab. But tutoring younger students in college sparked a love of teaching and helping students find their academic passions so that they could go on to college.
“I simply fell in love with teaching and working with students.” Burnam said.
At Camden Prep, she hopes to bring a lot of the practices and systems that work so well at North Star, a high school that has consistently ranked at the top of the state for the past decade. “I’ve taught at a lot of places and I’ve never seen a model work as well as our instructional leadership model,” Burnam told an interviewer when the school won the “College Success Award” last year for the large percentage of students who go on to graduate from college.
Burnam has also been featured nationally on NBC’s Education Summit discussing the importance of STEM education.
Burnam first came to Camden six years ago when Uncommon Schools was opening its first school there, to knock on doors and talk to families. Remembering that experience — meeting families so eager for new schools — she recently jumped at the chance to lead a brand new high school in Camden, which opens August 31.
“What brought me back to Camden was the families here,” Burnam said. “When I knocked on those doors six years ago, the families I spoke to were excited about the idea of a new school with a high bar for education that was ready to care for their children. I was really moved by what families were saying to me and by their enthusiasm.”
Starting a new school is daunting under the best circumstances, but Burnam will be starting Camden Prep during a viral pandemic that adds a new layer of uncertainty and complexity to running a school.
But Burnam said her time at North Star has prepared her for the task at hand. On March 13, North Star, along with all Uncommon Schools, closed their facilities due to the pandemic. Four days later, on March 17, Burnam and the other educators re-opened up online — ensuring the students didn’t miss a beat and could continue to learn from home.
“I saw what it takes to build a school online,” she said. “We did a great job of making sure that students were engaged every day in thoughtful lessons that are truly preparing them for college. We really just want to make sure that we are continuing both a rigorous education while being mindful of their additional responsibilities while they're still at home.”
As the high school’s first leader, Burnam knows she is responsible for creating the school’s culture. While setting a high academic bar will be her focus, she also wants to ensure students are well-rounded by participating in sports and other extracurricular activities.
“I think one way that you know that culture is strong with school is when students really have a lot of pride in themselves and pride in each other as a community,” Burnam said.
“Our founding ninth graders are laying the groundwork for decades and decades to come after them,” she said. “We get to start something brand new and I am thoroughly excited to begin this journey.”