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O’Neill: In Camden, Philanthropy, District, Charter and Innovation Schools Are Working Together to Improve Outcomes for Students with Disabilities

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A local foundation called the Camden Education Fund (CEF) is forging a community of district, charter and other innovative public schools, with a particular focus on educating students with the greatest needs. This holistic, city-based approach prioritizes what’s best for families and puts philanthropic resources to work to ensure that the needs of all students, including those with disabilities, are central. The fund’s model can be replicated wherever there are school choice options, local funders and underserved families.

Camden has long been a place of tremendous need. For decades, the city was ranked as one of the poorest in America, and for years was among the most dangerous. A range of civic reforms, including housing rehabilitation and a larger, revitalized police force that engages with local community watch groups, have put it on a more positive trajectory, but daunting challenges remain. About 28.6% of Camden residents had an income below the poverty line in 2019, which was 68% greater than the poverty level statewide.

There are roughly 15,000 students in public schools in Camden. Academic performance has historically been catastrophically low across many measures, including test scores and dropout rates. In an effort to reverse this chronic pattern, the state intervened in the Camden school district in 2013, and it remains under state control. Reform efforts are, however, starting to make a discernible difference.

One approach to changing the patterns in Camden is to offer parents more choice in where they send their children to school. In addition to its traditional public schools, the city now has five charter networks and three networks of renaissance schools — which have charter-like autonomy but serve neighborhood catchment areas. Both charter and renaissance schools operate independently of the Camden district. In many cities, competition for students and friction among these different types of schools would be a barrier to collaboration. In Camden, however, educators are cooperating to break down institutional divisions and to specifically prioritize improving outcomes for students with disabilities. This effort is being led by CEF, a funder with a commitment to student-focused education reform in Camden. The fund is marshaling its resources to foster the sharing of ideas and promising practices and drive systemic change, through a coordinated suite of elements including:

  • Program grants: CEF awarded $1.23 million in grants last year, enabling a range of district, charter and renaissance schools to develop new supports for students with disabilities. For example, KIPP Cooper Norcross Academy, a renaissance school, is using fund resources to create a robust job and skills program for high school students with disabilities, including building a model apartment where students can practice independent living skills. Camden’s Promise Charter School is using the funds to provide individualized early literacy instruction to children with disabilities. Camden City School District is using CEF money to develop a farm-to-table culinary arts program among its life skills courses at Woodrow Wilson High School. Students will gain technical and soft skills to prepare for work in the agricultural, culinary and food service industries.
  • Accelerating Inclusion Institute: CEF created this training program for special educators from the district, charter, and renaissance sectors. In this eight-session series, The institute will lead school teams through three content arcs that build and reinforce the critical skills, beliefs and practices schools need to ensure equity and inclusion for students with disabilities.  The arcs include lesson design in inclusive settings to meet the needs of all learners, data practices that drive instructional decisionmaking and effective resource allocation to meet the needs of all learners. Led by the national Center for Learner Equity, participants meet monthly and receive a stipend. 
  • Camden Teacher Pipeline: CEF established a pipeline connecting local universities with Camden schools in need of new teachers. In partnership with Rowan University, Rider University and Relay Graduate School of Education, it is designed to attract new teachers to Camden, provide them with hands-on training and align their student teaching experience with schools that anticipate hiring for the upcoming year. The program has been in place for several years and now also features a special education track, focusing on recruiting special educators from Rowan’s Inclusive Education Program.
  • RISE Award for Teacher Excellence: ln 2020, CEF initiated an award program to honor Camden’s Resilient, Inspirational, Solutions-oriented Educators (RISE). It asks principals from the city’s district, charter and renaissance schools to nominate three teachers, at least one of whom must be a special education teacher. Up to six winners are chosen each year for recognition and a $5,000 prize.

These programs foster collaboration and a sort of cross-pollination of ideas and best practices to better serve families and students, including those with disabilities. Taken together, these approaches break important new ground. While political barriers and divisions among different types of schools often preclude these sorts of coordinated citywide reform efforts, the theory of change at work in Camden is replicable in communities across the country. Wherever parents have school choice options, student need is substantial and there is a local funder committed to building bridges by fostering the success of all students, this model can take root. It is crucial work in service of equity and deserves close attention and support.

Paul O’Neill is co-founder of the Center for Learner Equity.

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