CAMDEN, NJ — When the school long known as the "Castle on the Hill" was torn down, those in the area wondered if another truly would rise in its place.
Demolition on the century-old Camden High School began a little more than a year ago, with pieces of the building salvaged for use again. But members of the community worried that the 1700 block of Park Boulevard would instead be plucked for residential development, or that construction for the planned modernized facility would stall for an indefinite time.
The concerns could be tossed aside Wednesday afternoon as the New Jersey Schools Development Authority gave tangible evidence — cranes, steel, and the ceremonial mound of dirt and shovels — that it was certainly following through on a $133 million commitment made three years earlier.
A crowd serving as a representation of city education's past and future gathered in Parkside, pushing through a bit of rain to break ground on the new Camden High, a 270,000-square-foot campus scheduled to open fall 2021.
The school will shift in structure to welcome in four "learning communities" from the district. More than 1,200 students are coming over from Brimm Medical Arts, Creative Arts High School, Big Picture Learning Academy, and Camden High, which currently operates at nearby Hatch Middle School.
"I am confident that this community will be proud of the new high school that will take shape at this site in the coming months," said SDA interim CEO Manuel Da Silva in front of a bustling work zone where footing and foundation for the building have already been completed.
"I attended a community meeting and committee meetings, and the question was 'how do you know it's going to happen?' The only way I could express it was, once you see the structure going up, that's when you see it is a reality," he continued.
The moment was one in which Katrina McCombs, superintendent of Camden schools, said she could "hardly contain" herself.
Navigating a budget crisis, school closure decisions, and possible layoffs since assuming an acting role in June 2018, McCombs had the chance to reflect on a positive moment for the district. The good news just so happened to involve her former high school, a place of "sacred ground," where she was a cheerleader.
"Although the building may have been demolished, we are still standing on sacred ground," she said. "Countless students, educators, families, and community members are deeply connected to this ground and to this land."
McCombs said that the district must continue to move forward in reaching equity in education and learning environments across the board.
"In this state-of-the-art school, we look forward to providing future generations of students even greater opportunities, greater motivation, and greater support, and greater exposure to academic and athletic excellence, more than I ever had the opportunity to experience," she said.
Mayor Frank Moran called the ceremony a point of "making history," where, in another 100 years, residents will look back on in honoring the updated iteration of Camden High.
The original roots won't be left out, either. Pieces of the old gym floor are some of the relics being incorporated into the build, Da Silva said.
The new campus will feature a black box theater; labs for medical arts, forensics, graphics, and robotics; and a dance studio, in addition to general classroom space, to meet the specialized needs of each school housed inside.
Da Silva, who was appointed to the post in April by Gov. Phil Murphy, said the idea of "learning communities" is what much of the state is trending toward.
He said the SDA recently implemented the model as a first at Trenton Central High School. Amid its own reconstruction project, the Trenton school is reopening in September with five academies.
"The intent is to provide the focused facilities for their education, but allow them to mix in and participate and get together with their friends from the neighborhood," Da Silva said. "It allows them to be separate but together when they need to."
CCSD advisory board member Martha Wilson, a Class of 1970 alumna, said that ensuring students always have a voice will come down to the efforts of years of city graduates.
"Generation after generation, that's what it's about," she said.