Camden schools give students a leg up with emphasis on career training

Mike Dougherty
January 03, 2019 - 4:00 am
Camden City Hall

Holli Stephens/KYW Newsradio, file

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CAMDEN, N.J. (KYW Newsradio) — Education is on the rise in Camden's schools.

Graduation rates have finally climbed after teetering below 50 percent for many years.

"We are up to 69 percent from 49 percent a few years ago," said Katrina McCombs, state-appointed acting superintendent of the Camden City School District. "If we stay on target, we should be able to get close 90 percent over the next few years."

McCombs noted they are seeing more students who are proficient, too. "That number has to be doubled and tripled, hence our focus on accelerating student achievement to ensure than achievement gap is closed."

She has seen Camden's schools transform firsthand: She grew up in Camden and began teaching kindergarten in the city in 1991.

McCombs has only been on the job as superintendent for six months. While Camden is still lagging behind neighboring towns in graduation rates and standardized testing, she said things are moving in the right direction.

Now, a new high school is being built with all the science and technology equipment students get in the suburbs. McCombs said they are also focusing on career training.

"We want to make sure that our students have the exposures that they need so that when they graduate, they are certified in certain areas that will give them a leg up as they are applying for jobs if they choose not to go to college," she added.

Still, students face many challenges. From buildings in need of repairs to instability at home, many believe the root cause is poverty

Sister Helen Cole, director of Guadalupe Family Services, has spent the last 30-plus years helping kids in any way she can — providing a meal, care or support.

"So many of our teens are on the defense, and they're ready a fight. It's because the lives they live and the people they encounter sometimes are very hostile," she said. "We let them see there's a world outside of Camden, and that's what's so important because some of our teens have never been outside of the city."
 
Bryan Morton hasn't left his city either. A lifelong North Camden resident and father of three, Morton observed that not only have the schools been improving, but the quality of life outside of school for his family is getting better, too.

"We have investments happening in our parks. We have have regular programming happening in our parks," he said, "so we don't as a family have to leave and go to Cooper River."

Once the residents reclaimed North Camden's public spaces and cleaned things up, he said, the drug activity stopped. He watched his neighborhood transform from the Heroin Highway — the worst neighborhood in Camden — to one of the best.

"You can just walk around and see smiles. You can see neighbors greeting neighbors. You can see individuals actively making sure their blocks are maintained and well-kept," said Morton. "I just want the thing that I get to experience when I walk outside my front door for someone in each of the 19 neighborhoods in the city of Camden."

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This is part three of a three-part series in which KYW Newsradio's Mike Dougherty takes an in-depth look at what has changed in the city of Camden.