CAMDEN, NJ— The New Jersey Schools Development Authority [SDA] met with the Camden community Tuesday night to discuss the state agency’s plans and progress on the new Camden High School project.
The meeting, held in the gymnasium at the Early Childhood Development Academy, allowed for community members, parents, teachers and stakeholder groups to discuss the project, and to learn about the opportunities that it will provide for community members.
In 2016, the SDA committed over $130 million to build a new Camden High School. The first phase of the project, the demolition of the former Camden High School and associated site work, is complete. Camden High School has been operating out of Hatch Middle School since September 2017.
The second phase began this October with the start of the design-build contract which was awarded to Ernest Bock & Sons of Philadelphia. Construction is scheduled to begin in the spring, and the new school is scheduled to open to students in September 2021.
According to Tuesday night’s presentation, the new school will be 270,000 square feet, two stories and serve 1,200 students, with a capacity of 1,460 students in ninth through 12th grade.
The school district’s magnet schools — Creative Arts Morgan Village Academy, Brimm Medical Arts and Camden Big Picture Learning Academy — will be moved to the new high school as small learning communities. The new school will also have space for a new small learning community, a STEAM Academy.
The four small learning communities will have their own dedicated classrooms and individualized spaces, such as music rooms, a dance studio and an art room for Creative Arts Morgan Village Academy students; various labs for the STEAM Academy; an entrepreneurial lab, art room and student lounge for Big Picture Learning Academy students; and forensic science lab, medical arts lab and an autistic sensory room for Brimm Medical Arts students.
Acting Camden City School District [CCSD] Superintendent Katrina McCombs said Tuesday night the school district envisions the new Camden High School to represent how a college campus would feel, and is working to figure how to offer classes for students who may not be enrolled in a certain small learning group, but wish to take a class offered there.
“So if I am one of the students at Brimm, but I am interested in taking a dance course at Creative Arts, there is some way we can have students cross-register so they can get those experiences,” McCombs said. “We’re working on figuring that out, because we want to make sure everyone is on course to graduate.”
The students from all schools — Camden High, Creative Arts Morgan Village Academy, Brimm Medical Arts and Big Picture Learning Academy — will share auditorium, the gymnasium, weight room, JAG classroom, ROTC classroom and daily living skills classroom. The cafeteria at the school will be divided into four areas.
McCombs said that school district is also working to figure out what it will do with the buildings of the three magnet schools once those students move, but as of now it envisions them becoming middle schools that feed into each of the high school learning communities. She added that the school district will get community input from the different neighborhoods about what they feel would be the best.
The design of the new school will also feature salvaged historic pieces from the old building, including an arch at the school’s main entrance and placing some on display in the school’s lobby.
“In conversation with the community and stakeholders, we started working in some of the historic pieces,” said Jeremy Clark, SDA’s design manager for the project. Clark added that the SDA will be providing computers and tablets for every student at the new school.
Camden resident Kevin Barfield said that he was encouraged that the new school was going to be built on the same site as the old Camden High, but had some concerns about how the resources would be divided among the four high school learning communities.
“I think it's a start,” Barfield said. “We know as a community that are still some things that need to be done and tweaked in reference to the structure of the individual schools … to give us more of a visual of what the Camden High component of the school reflects.”
The meeting was also part of the SDA’s new vision and direction under the leadership of new CEO Lizette Delgado Polanco, who took over in August.
“The new vision and direction of the SDA is not only to build tomorrow’s schools today, but to also incorporate the community in the building of it,” Delgado Polanco said. “We want to not only make the investments in building the schools, we also want to use folks at the local level.”
Delgado Polanco said that the SDA is working to make sure residents will have the opportunity to be a part of building the new high school, whether it was through jobs working on the construction of the school, or through the SDA’s Small, Minority and Women-owned Business Enterprises Contractor Training program [SMWBE].
“We’re working with the elected officials, the community folks and our team to make sure that whatever it is that we’re building is what they want. In addition to that, that for the schools we are building — there is local hires of local folks.”
The SDA’s SMWBE program, started in 2011, helps small businesses improve core skills needed for operating a contractor business and teaches them how to maneuver the SDA and other state agency websites to find and bid on government contracts.
On Tuesday night, in addition to the entire SDA team in attendance, there were also members of the state departments of education and labor to answer any questions from residents.
“One of the things that we heard over and over again, even when this project started a couple years back, was that residents wanted to be able to benefit from the new construction that was going on to get jobs,” McCombs said. “This happening today shows the SDA’s real commitment to really making sure the local community and local businesses really do have a fair shot at being able to benefit from such a huge project in the city.”
Pastor and community activist Amir Khan said Tuesday night that while he was encouraged by Tuesday’s meeting held by the SDA, he still had some distrust with the SDA after he felt members of the community were not listened to at early meetings about the Camden High School project.
“There are still concerns I have that I am trying to get over from the past,” Khan said.
To date, the SDA has invested more than $260 million in completed projects in Camden alone including five Capital projects and 58 health and safety/grant/emergent projects. The SDA’s current portfolio of active projects is valued at over $2 billion – including the Capital Project portfolio, emergent projects and Regular Operating District grants.