In Camden, new schools are changing environment — and opportunity — around education

Recent opening of Camden Prep ($50M project) is just latest example in $550M effort aimed at transforming city

When Camden Mayor Vic Carstarphen stood in the gleaming new gym at Camden Prep High School, surrounded by students and teachers to cut a ribbon marking the ceremonial opening of the $50 million state-of-the-art building that replaced a long-vacant industrial lot, he was taken aback by the moment.

“I can’t say enough about how inspiring it is as a leader in this city to see a school bring about children and inspire them and let them have dreams to be successful,” he told the assembly. “Camden Prep, you have planted the seeds for our children to create the life that they want to live and lead in a life that they deserve, and that’s legacy.

“And that’s being a part of something special.”

The 71,000-square-foot building, which features new science labs, performance art spaces, a multipurpose gym and a turf field, is the latest new school to open in New Jersey’s poorest city, where, over the last decade, more than $550 million has been invested in district and renaissance school buildings.

The district’s new Camden High School, which opened in 2021, alone cost $133 million and Eastside High School, whose construction was announced earlier this year, will cost $105 million by the time it’s built. Since 2016, the city’s renaissance schools have invested over $300 million to either build new schools or renovate former district buildings, according to the Camden Education Fund.

This investment has resulted in six brand-new school buildings and nine fully renovated buildings, which combined will serve over 7,500 students when they are all completed and full. Camden has a total of 16,000 K-12 students.

Camden Prep High School in Camden.

Of course, the question is: Can new school buildings make a difference?

The answer is an overwhelming “Yes.”

A recent study showed that, when moving into a newly constructed school, students showed improvement in test scores, daily attendance and grades. Both students and teachers feel more motivated to succeed.

“While new school buildings will not solve all of our children’s challenges, they are a powerful statement about our values — and, in particular, they show how much we value our students in Camden,” Carstarphen recently wrote in an op-ed with Giana Campbell, who heads the Camden Education Fund.

“Camden is a great example of what happens when state and local leaders put egos aside and come together to plan for a future that puts students and community members first.”

Camden has had a long-troubled school system that led to a state takeover of the district in 2013. Under state control, numerous controversial changes were made, including the closure of several district schools, which sparked community and union opposition.

In the years that followed, new renaissance schools — authorized by the Urban Hope Act of 2012 — began springing up around the city. The Urban Hope Act was authored by Donald Norcross when he was a state senator, and supported by his brother, George Norcross.

In 2014, the Cooper Foundation, with support from the Norcross family, opened KIPP Cooper Norcross Academy, one of three renaissance schools in Camden. The other two are Mastery Schools of Camden and Uncommon Schools, both of which also opened in 2014.

Though all three are managed by charter school networks, renaissance schools are different in that they require local school board approval, must take students from a “catchment area” much like a neighborhood school, and they receive more funding than a charter school. Though renaissance schools were authorized in three cities, they were only opened in Camden.

The ribbon-cutting ceremony for the school.

Carstarphen said new facilities like Eastside High School and Camden Prep High School complement different school models in the city and are being combined with new partnerships and programs to help students in Camden, which stubbornly has some of the worst-performing schools in the state.

“While we have a long way to go to provide an education that helps all Camden students fulfill their vast potential long-term, these continued facilities improvements directly benefit thousands of students right now and show more and more people that Camden is a city on the rise,” Carstarphen said.

The investment in education is a recognition that education is the key to transforming Camden into the great American small city that its civic leaders aspire to create. Schools such as Camden Prep are moving the city toward that goal.

Maurquay Moody, who started at Camden Prep in its first fourth-grade class and is now in his senior year at the high school, appreciates that his hometown cares enough about him to invest in a new building, even if he will only call it home for one year — before he heads off to college.

“The best part about being here for us is realizing that this school is ours,” he said. “It’s a place where each of us can find what we need to feel welcomed and supported and pushed to be better versions of ourselves.”