CAMDEN, NJ — Months ago, Wanda Tooentino could be seen among scores of classmates staging a spring afternoon protest, signs in hand, from the front lawn of Veterans Memorial Family School.
It was one of numerous actions in April — the president of a Camden school union trekked 40 miles over three days to the state capital to demand education aid — in an effort to save the city's traditional public schools, most notably the nearly century-old Vets, following an announcement of closures and layoffs due to a budget deficit.
The advocates of all ages rejoiced when the Camden City School District slightly reversed course two months later, revealing that the Cramer Hill neighborhood school would remain open for at least the 2019-20 year. Funding was anticipated to cover the cost of emergent repairs needed for the building.
That moment brought an immediate sigh of relief and cause for celebration for members of the community.
Likewise, another gathering at the school grounds last week, a barbecue to kick off the new year, made the news all the more real.
And there again was Tooentino, having since graduated but showing support just as she first did.
“After all that we went through — we didn’t like the fact that (the school) was going to close — today is a day where we all know ‘we did it,' " she said Thursday afternoon. "And we had a lot of help. So we’re glad to see everyone came out. It’s all about the kids that want to go to this school.”
"My little brothers and sisters and cousins, when they go here, it’s like a second family. Even if you have problems at home or get into an argument or something, we come here and we get to vent. This is the only place where we get to vent and feel comfortable.”
Many of the fellow former eighth-graders returned for the event, Tooentino said, soaking in the joy of families and school staff getting to prepare for another year at the school, beginning Sept. 5. Inflatables and games took over the park area, while information booths lined the walkway up to the school. And there was plenty to eat, including selections from a school district food truck.
Even with the uncertainty of Vets' future beyond the upcoming year, Tooentino said she's glad to see that another class of students will get to finish middle school where they began.
“At least we know that the seventh graders that are coming up are still going to have a chance to graduate from here,” said Tooentino, who noted that she had only been in the area for a year, while others attended the school much longer. “We give them the chance to actually graduate from this school, their home school.”
Those in the community stress that the "family" in Veterans Memorial Family School is not just a throw-in word.
For parents like Ayda Rodriguez, the school will always be worth the fight.
Rodriguez watched her children grow up through Vets and now her grandchildren doing the same. She continues to volunteer year-round.
"The teachers, the staff, everybody here are always friendly, always helping out when you need it," she said. "We need public schools, it shouldn’t be closed down."
The initial news about the school earlier this year worried residents in the area like Rodriguez. Vets is the closest option, and for many who don't have a car or drive, choosing another school seemed unthinkable.
“When they started saying your kids have to go somewhere else, half of these kids come up in buses, half of them don’t have transportation," Rodriguez said. "How did they think these kids were going to feel when they have to walk in the winter?”
But that issue is avoided for at least another year. Now, the teachers and staff say, it's about making sure that students previously thought to be lost to a host of other Camden schools are brought back.
The district had tables set up at the barbecue for families looking to enroll their child at Vets or change from another school.
"This school epitomizes what a family school truly is: pre-K through 8th grade, all hands on deck, takes a village to raise a child. And you truly feel that here," said Denise Kaeferle, a kindergarten teacher in her sixth year at Vets and 30th in the district. "I am so unbelievably happy that this school stayed open because it is such a centerpiece of the Cramer Hill area."
She said the outreach for the school has been like "a hidden gem," not like anything she's seen before.
Kaeferle was one of several school staffers decked out in matching yellow t-shirts that read "Vets Strong" overtop a school. Dolly Conner, a Vets special education teacher, said the shirts represented "a sign of solidarity." The plan came together after the announcement that the school would close.
"We knew we would be attending board meetings and social functions, and we wanted to show our support not only as a school but as a family," Conner said.