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Mastery and Uncommon Charter Chains to Open 11 Schools for 6,914 Students

July 17, 2014

NJ Education Commissioner David Hespe has approved the plans of two out-of-state charter school chains – Mastery and Uncommon – to open 11 schools serving almost 7,000 K-12 schoolchildren in the State-operated Camden district, starting in September.

Mastery and Uncommon will join the KIPP charter chain in opening schools under the "Urban Hope Act," a bill passed by the NJ Legislature in 2012 authorizing the State-operated Camden district to “partner” with private, non-profit organizations to operate charter-style schools, provided the schools are located in “newly constructed” or “substantially renovated” facilities. 

The Mastery and Uncommon applications were submitted jointly with the State-operated district in April and June. The applications, including the location and number of schools and student enrollments, were never made public and were obtained by Education Law Center through a formal request under the state Open Public Records law.

The approvals by Commissioner Hespe, dated July 7, 2014, authorize Mastery, based in Philadelphia, to operate six schools with a total enrollment of 4,654 students, and Uncommon, based in New York City, to operate five schools with a total enrollment of 2,260 students.

In 2013, then Education Commissioner Chris Cerf approved the KIPP charter chain, also based in New York City, to open five schools serving 2,300 students.

Governor Chris Christie's administration has given the green light to KIPP, Mastery and Uncommon to open a total of 16 schools in Camden with a total enrollment of 9,214 students. In 2013-14, Camden had a K-12 enrollment of 15,000 students, with 11,000 in 26 public neighborhood and magnet schools and 4,000 in 11 existing charter schools.

The Camden district is under full State control, so the school board is advisory and prohibited from voting on the Mastery and Uncommon proposals. The board is also appointed by Mayor Dana Redd.  Mayor Redd submitted letters in support of the charter chains, promising to give city-owned land to Mastery and to "partner" with Uncommon to buy a privately owned site for the schools.

The key details of the approved Mastery and Uncommon plans are:

Mastery: approved to operate a “Pre-K to 12 network of schools” in the North Camden, East Camden and Cramer Hill neighborhoods. The schools will be opened in two phases: Phase 1 will be a newly constructed K-6 elementary school for 525 students on city-owned land at 24 Harrison Avenue in the Cramer Hill section. The school will open in 2016-17. During the construction phase starting this September, Mastery will co-locate temporarily in the district’s Pyne Point Middle School so “Camden students have access to a high quality education during the construction of the new facility.”

In Phase 2, Mastery will open five additional schools “bringing the total to 4654 students.” Mastery will open at least one additional school per year from 2015 through 2017-18. The schools will create a Pre-K to 12 “efficient feeder pattern,” citing "data" that “proves the earlier we provide a quality Mastery education to our students, the more they excel later.”

Uncommon: approved to operate five schools serving grades K-12, beginning with the construction of a new K-4 school and 5-8 school in the Whitman Park section of the city. These schools will be located at 1800 Copewood Street, directly across from the district’s Brimm Medical Arts High School. The K-4 and 5-8 schools will enroll 810 students on land to be acquired “in partnership with the Mayor’s Office.” Pending construction, Uncommon will open temporarily in Parkside Elementary School, a district-owned building closed several years ago due to unsafe, hazardous conditions. Uncommon will  “follow a scaled growth model, adding one grade level per year until they reach full capacity.”

In Phase 2, Uncommon will open three additional schools serving 1450 students. A second elementary and middle school will open in 2015-16, and a high school will be opened in 2019. 

Other Key Details: under the Urban Hope Act, Uncommon and Mastery, along with KIPP, will receive 95% of the Camden district’s per-pupil funding each year, including State hold harmless (adjustment) aid. Charter schools receive only 90% and do not receive adjustment aid. Aside from a cursory review by the Commissioner every two years, Uncommon and Mastery will operate under a renewable 10-year operational agreement with the Camden district and are exempt from State accountability and oversight requirements applicable to district and charter schools.

The Commissioner’s approval of the Mastery and Uncommon applications is unconditional, allowing the charter chains to proceed with opening all 10 schools for 7,000 students. The State-operated district’s role is restricted to paying the appropriate amount of state and local school funding to the chains from the district's annual budget.

The Mastery and Uncommon applications do not address whether or how they will serve English language learners (ELL), students with disabilities, students at risk of dropping out or who have dropped out, or students with behavioral, discipline or other challenges. Camden district schools currently serve 9% ELL students and 19% students with disabilities.

The Impact on Camden Schoolchildren

As a result of the Commissioner’s approvals, the private KIPP, Mastery and Uncommon charter chains will operate 16 schools serving 64% of all Camden schoolchildren. On June 30, the Legislature rushed through an amendment to the Urban Hope Act that extends for another year the Commissioner’s authority to approve one additional charter organization to open even more schools. As a result, the KIPP, Mastery and Uncommon organizations – and a likely fourth charter chain – will be primarily responsible for educating Camden schoolchildren for generations to come.

The Commissioner’s action will also have a major impact on the State-operated Camden district, relegating the district to the task of transferring funding to Mastery, KIPP and Uncommon, while attempting to educate, with a severely diminished budget, those students the charters are either unwilling or unable to serve. 

As Mastery, KIPP and Uncommon open schools and increase enrollments, the State-operated district will be forced to close many, if not most, of the 26 schools currently in operation. The State in recent months closed two charter schools that had been serving Camden neighborhoods for many years. It is likely that more of these "homegrown" charters will also be closed.

Under direction from the Christie Administration, the Camden district has moved aggressively to assist KIPP, Mastery and Uncommon to establish and operate schools in the city. It is also unclear what, if any, efforts the district is making to improve district-run schools, even though most are designated as "priority and focus" schools and, as a result, are subject to support and assistance from the State Education Department's "Regional Achievement Centers."

The State has acted in a matter of months to remake public education in Camden, shifting governance and control over the city’s schools to private organizations based outside New Jersey. This has occurred with almost no information about the specifics of the State's plans and no meaningful opportunity for parent and community input.

Education Law Center urges parents, residents and concerned citizens to call on Mayor Redd and Commissioner Hespe to fully explain why the State has delegated to the Mastery, KIPP and Uncommon organizations the responsibility for operating so many of the city’s schools, and to inform the community about how the boards of trustees of these private organizations will be held accountable for providing a “thorough and efficient” education not just for some, but for all of Camden’s schoolchildren.


Press Contact:

Sharon Krengel
Policy and Outreach Director
973-624-1815, x 24