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Inquirer: Bill introduced for Renaissance schools’ added tools

Inquirer: Bill introduced for Renaissance schools’ added tools

By Claudia Vargas, Inquirer Staff Writer
June 2, 2013

The KIPP Cooper Norcross Academy, which plans to open as the state’s first Renaissance school in 2014 in Camden, is trying to load up its toolbox in anticipation of its debut.

A bill introduced Thursday by State Sen. Donald Norcross (D., Camden) would amend the Urban Hope Act, which he sponsored in 2010 and Gov. Christie signed in January 2011, to allow:

A dormitory and related facilities for one school project per Renaissance school district.

A Renaissance school project to build its facilities within a two-mile radius of the site of the initial school.

A municipality, county, or county improvement authority to issue bonds to finance construction of a Renaissance school project.

There are “no plans at all in the immediate future” to use the proposed tools, including building a dormitory, Norcross said Friday. But KIPP wants the options available.

“This is a pilot project,” Norcross said. It’s to “try to do things a little bit differently and see what works.”

The Urban Hope Act gives school boards the power to approve up to four of the public-private, charter-like Renaissance projects each in Camden, Trenton, and Newark. Only Camden has made use of the statute.

KIPP Cooper Norcross Academy was created in a partnership among KIPP, one of the largest charter school networks in the country; the Cooper Foundation, the charitable arm of Cooper University Hospital; and the Norcross Foundation, established by the family of Norcross and his brother, George E. Norcross III, chairman of Cooper University Hospital, a Democratic leader, and a managing partner of the company that owns The Inquirer. George Norcross’ daughter, Alessandra, a director of the parent company of The Inquirer, is an officer of the foundation and a board member of KIPP Cooper Norcross Academy.

After state Education Commissioner Chris Cerf gave the final approval in March for KIPP to move forward with its plan to build a five-school campus serving more than 2,000 students, the New Jersey Education Law Center went to court to reverse Cerf’s approval.

In a filing in Superior Court on behalf of some city residents and regional organizations, the law center said the KIPP application does not follow the law with regard to three of its five proposed schools.

The KIPP application defined its campus as the entire city, drawing criticism from David Sciarra, executive director of the New Jersey Education Law Center. Sciarra and those involved in the appeal say a campus should have more narrowly defined boundaries.

Norcross’ bill does just that. Boundaries would be set to a two-mile radius from the initial school, as opposed to an entire city.

Norcross said he was unaware of any issues regarding the definition of a campus setting.

Sciarra could not be reached for comment Friday.

Some Camden school board members expressed surprise Friday about the proposed legislative changes.

Board President Kathryn Blackshear said giving parents the option of a boarding school might be a good thing.

“People learn by different means,” said the mother of three grown boys. “I would have loved to home-tutor my kids, but a dorm situation would work for other parents.”

Ryan Hill, chief executive officer of the KIPP schools in Newark, who will manage the Camden KIPP school, said his team had been discussing a dormitory for his Newark students and wanted to have the option as the network expanded into Camden.

“Some of our kids don’t have stable homes,” Hill said. “We anticipate an even greater need in Camden.”

School founders hope to open the first school in Camden in fall 2014 on a site in Lanning Square that was long reserved for a traditional public school. The second school will open at the same site later, but the other three locations have yet to be identified.

The state spent nearly $11 million to demolish the original Lanning Square Elementary School, acquire land (including through eminent domain), and commission architectural plans.

The Cooper Foundation, which is handling the facilities aspect of the project, is basing its plans on the state’s architectural designs for the never-built Lanning Square Elementary School.

KIPP Cooper Norcross Academy will seek all sorts of funding, since “new buildings are a lot more expensive” than refurbishing old buildings, Hill said.

If the bill passes, using government-issued bonds to finance construction could become an option. Also, dormitories could be built with New Jersey Housing and Mortgage Finance Agency funding.