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“A ZIP code does not determine your ability”: Educators turn failing New Jersey school into success story

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Published: Sep. 17, 2021 at 11:23 PM EDT
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CAMDEN, NEW JERSEY (CBS News) - A charter school in New Jersey was one of the worst-performing schools in the state until a group of educators led by principal Susanna Tagoe stepped in.

“Camden is not just the boarded-up houses that you see. There are lives, there are brilliant, beautiful scholars,” Tagoe said. “There are families who love their kids, who are passionate about education, passionate about equity, passionate about change.”

That passion helped turn Camden’s failing public schools into a success story. Eight years ago, the state took over the schools and transformed them. Once a rundown building, Camden Prep is now the highest performing school in the area.

The percentage of kids in the elementary school who are at or above grade level in math soared from 3% in 2014 to 60% in 2019. In reading, there was an increase from 4% to 50% during the same time period.

“When you see our kids in action and you see how much brilliance and how capable they are, then you understand not to limit them,” Tagoe said.

The creation of what are called “renaissance schools” is part of Camden’s second act. Unlike traditional charter schools, there is not lottery admission at Camden Prep. Students get to go there because they live in the neighborhood. “That proves that a ZIP code does not determine your ability,” Tagoe said.

The curriculum is tailored to each student’s ability and measures both their academic and emotional progress. Teachers are in daily communication with students’ parents.

Rashad McCray, a fifth-grader, said his teachers will give him one-on-one time when he needs help. “When I go to school, I see my teachers and my classmates and I think, ‘OK, I’m going to be comfortable here,’” he said.

It’s a feeling Tagoe never experienced as the only student of color at her elementary school. When she was 5, a boy at school told her, “Don’t touch me, you’re dirty.”

“When I think about that moment — especially being dark skinned and you know you’re different — I think about why I do this work,” she said. “They’re going to be the next generation to change society and ensure that everything is better for them, and better for the next generation after, and that’s a big responsibility. But it’s a beautiful one.”

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