Camden City School District

(still) waiting for Superman in New Jersey's toughest city

Camden City School District (CCSD) serves ~15K students in the city of Camden, NJ.  Known for its violence and drug-riddled streets, Camden is not a city that most would choose to raise a family in.  Still, the mission of the school district is to provide equitable access to a high-quality education to prepare students for life and career. Though the current administration and many of the teachers live and breathe this mission each day, the reality for most students remains stark, and their prospects few.

I began at CCSD in November of 2013 after being hired by the new superintendent.  During my first month there, I uncovered a horrifying statistic: only 3 students were deemed college ready in the high school class that had graduated the prior spring.  That is 3 students (no, not 3% of students) out of a graduating class of approximately 500, as measured by their performance on the ACT[1].  This was just the first of many disappointing data points discovered as we began to delve deeper into the district’s data while developing a strategic plan for the district.

Given the district’s business model is focused on educating the preK through 12th grade students in Camden, it is important to note that these students also represent the district’s revenue source, as school districts in New Jersey are funded on a per pupil basis.  However, unlike a purchase where a customer can walk away if they are unsatisfied or have received poor customer service, these students have few alternatives outside of the CCSD school located in their neighborhood.  Therefore, they are reliant on the success of the district’s operational model, which involves:

  • Talent – The district employs a teaching staff of nearly 2,000. However, rising healthcare and pension costs have squeezed the remaining funding that can be allocated to teacher salaries (among other rising costs in the district), so there had not been raises for teachers in several years.  Between the challenges of working with Camden’s student and parent population, the risks associated with just getting to work and the low pay, retaining quality teaching staff was a major challenge.
  • Capital – The district’s aging infrastructure represents another challenge and cost center. The city’s declining population has left many school buildings under-capacity, meaning that they are no longer candidates for renovation with state funds, but at the same time, the district has not had a new school building in nearly 2 decades.
  • Funding – Through a combination of state, federal and local funding, CCSD receives more than $25K per student each year. This is more than double the amount per student in many of the state’s more economically advantaged areas[2], but also a real-world example of “throwing money at a problem.”  As more and more students have left the city, or opted for enrollment at one of the handful of charter schools in the city, funding has been drained from the system – but many of the district’s fixed costs (upkeep for aging buildings, pension costs, etc) have continued to grow.

The current operating model for CCSD is similar to the operating model in districts nationwide; while it successfully supports the execution of districts’ business models in some places, Camden represents a place where it is clearly failing.  It is failing because it is inflexible and because it fails to account for the unique needs of students in a city like Camden.  It is failing because costs are not fungible, and though dollars follow the students, many costs stay behind when the student leaves.  It is failing because funds are tied up in crumbling buildings, in funding a pension system that is antiquated and likely won’t even provide for today’s teachers in retirement.  With many fixed and increasing costs, it is difficult to direct dollars to the school- and classroom-level where they may be used by school leaders and teachers to more directly impact student learning and success.

This is not to say there isn’t hope in Camden, or even in public education systems in general.  Many charter schools have proven it is possible to do more with less, to make progress in leaps and bounds with students who others might have given up on and to train and retain high quality teachers without a pension system.  And with a new teachers’ contract[3] in Camden, commitment for a new high school from the state[4] and improving school climate and culture[5], CCSD is certainly moving in the right direction.  They’ve just got a long and hard road in front of them.

[1] “Only 3 students scored college-ready in Camden”, nj.com, December 18, 2013.  http://www.nj.com/camden/index.ssf/2013/12/only_3_students_scored_college-ready_in_camden.html

[2] “NJ Per Pupil Spending”, http://www.nj.com/education/2015/04/nj_schools_how_much_is_your_district_spending_per.html.

[3] “New contract for Camden’s teachers”, Courier Post, March 11, 2015. http://www.courierpostonline.com/story/news/local/south-jersey/2015/03/10/new-contract-camdens-teachers/24713079/

[4] “Gov. Chris Christie announces $50M upgrade to Camden High School facilities”, nj.com, December 2, 2014. http://www.nj.com/camden/index.ssf/2014/12/gov_chris_christie_announces_50m_upgrade_to_camden_high_school_facilities.html

[5] “Superintendent and School Leaders Share Progress…”, CCSD press release, July 6, 2015. http://www.camden.k12.nj.us/pdf/news_releases//2015-2016/01-Superintendent%20and%20School%20Leaders%20Share%20Progress.pdf

Previous:

Harvest Power

Next:

VALEANT: Valiant Vendor or Voracious Villain?

3 thoughts on “Camden City School District

  1. What an eye-opening post, Kate. I can’t even imagine how challenging it must be for CCSD to attract and retain teachers. I wonder what charter schools are doing to be more efficient with their funding. I’m also curious whether CCSD sees programs like Teach for America as helpful or just introducing more complexity into the system.

  2. Hi Kate – thanks for sharing! This is a fascinating post. In your post, you mention the “unique needs of students in a city like Camden”. I’d be curious to know if you had anything specific or more details to share. I agree with many points you brought up. Many believe cities like Camden are short of money, but I am with you, I believe there is a much deeper rooted problem.

  3. Thank you Kate for staying true to yourself and highlighting such an important topic. You eloquently make the case that the operating model is so flawed that it makes a winning business model but a dream. Your post made me wonder what effect the recent repulsion of the no child left behind policy will have on institutions such as the Camden City School District? Will it result in a perpetuation of the “throwing money on problems” phenomenon? Will the increased autonomy truly deliver more efficient operational models and consequently, winning business models in schools? Nonetheless, you are so brave for serving CCSD. I certainly hope you continue being just as brave after HBS and continue to serve. Bravo!

Leave a comment