CAMDEN, NJ — At the first advisory board meeting since the start of school, Camden Schools Superintendent Katrina McCombs shared the district's adjusted priorities for the academic year.

A new strategic plan, dubbed “Putting Students First," was unveiled by McCombs last September and featured close to 30 goals for the district to reach in the near future. Four focus areas within that plan have been adjusted for the 2019-20 year in response to "some of the data and some of the needs that we saw in the past year," McCombs said.

"Since launching the strategic plan about a year ago, we've been continually working to ensure our focus is on the highest priorities to move the district forward," she said to lead off Tuesday night's meeting, held at H.B. Wilson Family School.

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The priorities defined are as follows.

1. Accelerating Student Achievement

By this, McCombs said the district is "not talking about test scores."

"We're talking about ensuring we are having our students who enter our classrooms at one point academically leaving and growing as much as they can possibly grow, with the support of our educators," she said.

One highlight shared in the area of achievement, as a preview of a district event next month where New Jersey Student Learning Assessments (NJSLA) data will be released, went to English language arts (ELA) and math performance from the past year.

The strategic plan sets goals of 66% of schools improving in the subject areas and 75% of students meeting goals in the subjects. McCombs said that 77% of schools improved while 56% of students met their ELA and math goals.

"That's roughly 6,000 (students) improving their reading and math performance across this district," she said.

Additionally, 77% of kindergarteners at the Early Childhood Development Center are reading on grade level as they head to first grade this year.

"To know that we are sending students to the next grade reading at high levels means we are slowly but surely closing the achievement gaps as well as opportunity gaps at our schools," she said.

McCombs also said that plans are in place for the opening of a welcome center at Veterans Memorial Family School. Expected to launch by winter, it represents the first phase of building Vets into a community school.

2. A Great Teacher in Every Classroom, Great Staff in Every Role

The next priority was amended to include the second piece -- going beyond just the classroom.

McCombs said the focus last year went to seeking out top-notch talent to guide the students. But other members also play a part in moving the district forward, thus bringing about the extension of the priority.

"Every staff in the district — from our custodial team, our guidance counselors, our payroll specialists, our coordinators, our senior directors, and so on — have an impact on the district's progress, and we all know that," she said. "So we want to make sure that we're focusing on every single role that impacts the outcomes of our students."

Currently, 93% of teacher positions for the 2019-20 year are filled, she said. The district is hoping to hire more billingual and special area teachers.

McCombs said the difficulty in finding these specialized teachers is prevalent across the Camden County schools landscape.

"We are working on sharing ideas with one another as superintendents in the area," she said.

3. Safe Schools, Built for 21st Century Success

The focus on school safety has never been more important in the country, and McCombs noted the district puts this at the forefront.

She said the Office of Safety and Security is receiving a grant of about $21,000 from the New Jersey Schools Insurance Group to support the purchase of new handheld transceivers, or walkie-talkies, for district security officers.

"Two-way radios play a vital role in maintaining the safety and security of our students and our staff members," she said. "Instantaneous communication is critical to providing a swift and effective response in the event of an emergency."

4. Financially Responsible, Fiscally Sustainable

The fourth priority saw the greatest change because it was literally overhauled entirely. The district last year identified a subject of "putting the school district’s students first."

This matched the overall focus of the strategic plan, and McCombs said her team opted for the switch because putting students first "stands on its own as the sole reason for all that we do."

"With every decision we make, from what school supplies and materials we purchase to the timeliness of how me make purchases and how we pay our vendors to the types of teachers and leaders we employ to the speed at which we respond to work orders, putting students first is always at the forefront," she said.

The district, with the update, aims to not just survive financially in the present, but plan and be setup for the future.

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