When Jelia Chatman started fourth grade at Camden Prep, she was shy, rarely spoke in school and was struggling academically.

On Thursday, Jelia graduated in a virtual commencement ceremony from Camden Prep Mt. Ephraim Middle School as the class valedictorian. She’s headed to Camden Prep’s new high school in the fall and she’s already thinking about college – Harvard or Princeton.

“The teachers at Camden Prep always made sure I understood the work,” Jelia said. “They really helped me get where I am today.”

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Jelia’s class of 38 students is the first to graduate from Camden Prep Mt. Ephraim Middle School. The class started at Camden Prep in 2015 in the Bonsall Family School on Mt. Ephraim Avenue.

“This is the culmination of all the work that they have done,” said Tom Weishaupt, the principal of Camden Prep Mt. Ephraim Middle School. “This is a moment we’ve been looking forward to as a community for years. It’s a shame that we’re not going to be able to celebrate in person, but that doesn’t diminish their accomplishments.”

Camden Prep, one of three renaissance schools operating in Camden, is part of the high-performing charter network, Uncommon Schools, whose mission is to ensure students get into, succeed in and graduate from college. The preparation begins as early as elementary school, where each classroom is named after a college that its alums have graduated from. 

Before Camden Prep arrived, students at the school were lagging academically. Only 3% were proficient in math and 4% in English.  Four years later, Camden Prep scholars are performing almost as well as the New Jersey state average in both math and English, even though New Jersey is one of the highest performing states in the nation.

The teachers love their students so much, said Weishaupt, and are highly trained to deliver joyful lessons that inspire students to learn more. 

One example of that love is that teachers throughout the school bought presents for graduating eighth graders. Weishaupt said teachers couldn’t wait to sign up to give a student a gift.

“We wanted to make our kids feel special,” the principal said. “We know how hard they worked for this moment and even though we are not together we wanted them to know how incredibly proud of their accomplishments we are and that we’re still thinking about them.”

Camden Prep is continuing to grow in the city. In 2017, a second campus opened in a new building on Copewood Street, at the border of the Whitman Park and Parkside neighborhoods.

Graduating 8th graders are headed to Camden Prep’s new high school in the fall. It will be temporarily located at the Copewood campus until a permanent location is acquired. Students will have state-of-the-art classrooms, science labs, performing arts spaces and sports facilities, including a regulation-sized basketball court and outdoor turf field.

In her valedictory speech to the class, Jelia told her fellow students that they need to support each other.

“We grew not only in intelligence and in our education, but as people,” she said. “As we move on to high school, we might hit bumps, we might have problems and face adversity, but we have to keep making sure to push through, not only as individuals, but as a group.”

Camden Prep High School is open to all Camden city residents. Parents with rising ninth grade students can apply at camdenenrollment.org or call (856) 536-3999.