CAMDEN, NJ — In between quick bites to eat and sips of refreshments under the midday sun, educators from across the Camden schools landscape shared strategies, heard different perspectives, and even reconnected with former colleagues.
There wasn’t a feeling of competition between school sectors that have sometimes been pitted against one another. There was a desire to do right by the students through new ideas and potential collaborations.
The theme of the event spelled it out pretty plainly, too: “Coming together is the beginning. Keeping together is progress. Working together is success.”
“Our team decided to do this so we could all stand as a united force, no matter what sector you work for,” said Tameeka Mason, executive director of Camden Enrollment, to the crowd of school leaders and operations personnel assembled for the organization’s mix and mingle event Wednesday afternoon at the Camden Arts Yard.
About 80 representatives from the traditional public, renaissance, charter, catholic partnerships, and private schools came to the first-of-its-kind city networking session, Mason said.
Attendees received folders with information on updates from the city's central enrollment hub, which launched in 2017 as a way for families to learn about and more easily apply to any of the Camden public schools. A gift-card raffle was held during the event that will help some educators with classroom supplies for the fast-approaching school year.
The gathering provided a chance to talk shop among peers. After all, they had at least one common interest that brought them there that day.
“We are connected, gelled together by a common bond. And that bond is our young people,” said Katrina McCombs, superintendent of the Camden City School District, who spoke briefly as a special guest. “I am so excited because many people said it couldn’t be done, that everyone from different school types could come together around our young people without focusing on the competition, without focusing on all those other pieces.
“We are gearing up for the best school year that Camden has seen. The best is certainly yet to come.”
Jonathan Taylor, principal at Pride Academy, saw how the event could benefit the best interests of city students. As educators, he said, they have to strive to be “lifetime learners.”
“In education, it’s your job to continue to learn from new people, and you don’t have to reinvent the wheel,” Taylor said. “So if there are good things going, you take those things and try to implement them in your building because ultimately it’s about the success for all students.”
Using a new app designed by Camden Enrollment, educators who registered for the event could then link with others listed over the couple hours.
The app also features a directory of city schools, intended to simplify communication between administrators, said Steve Silvasy, director of data and technology.
“This way if they have to discuss records being transferred or something like that, it’s easy to reach out through email or phone,” he said. “What’s interesting is every school has something extremely valuable that they want to talk about or may need information about, (so) it’s a great way to connect everybody.”
Reflecting on the turnout for the day, Mason thought the event “became a big hit.” She said the interest shown for the second consecutive year -- a get together of about half the size was held previously at the Camden Historical Society -- indicates that school leaders do want to work together.
The mission is to prepare students for success now but also beyond high school years in Camden, she said.
“We’re all doing the same thing, so why not just share those best practices?” said Mason, who worked in the school district for 15 years. “And then there’s the opportunity to just highlight your school and brag about your school and say ‘here, this is what we offer.’”
A survey found in the Camden Enrollment app allowed educators to share thoughts on the event and the future of networking opportunities. Early feedback revealed that school leaders would want to come together at least twice a year, Mason said. That could potentially set up fall and spring as annual check-ins.
“When you do an event like this, it doesn’t just say ‘hey, we’re hosting an event.’ These are conversations,” she said. “The reason this is thought of is because we’ve had conversations with school leaders, teachers, parents. We’re going to begin conversations with students.
"(This is) just so we can really build out a system that is streamlined, fair, equitable, and accessible for anyone. It’s about resources and connecting. It’s about providing people with as much information possible so that they can make their own decisions.”