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Carlos R. Moreno Headshot

There Are Still Some Lights On in Camden

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At this time of the year when we pause to honor Dr. Martin Luther King and to celebrate Black History month, Jr., I am reminded of how persistently he dreamed even in the face of seemingly insurmountable obstacles. He taught us the irresistible power of dreaming and hope.

I wonder how Dr. King would have dealt with Camden and its troubles.

Two recent articles on this community I know and try to serve are, for me, uncomfortably illuminating. They speak to a great unraveling in Camden, especially for its young people. Perhaps you saw them also. The first is by Matt Taibbi in Rolling Stone this past December and the second by Andy Smarick, formerly New Jerseys' Deputy Education Commissioner, on the Education Next website on Jan. 9. Both tell stories of young people that hurt me deeply.

Yet, these articles, for Camden residents, read like week-old Tweets. They have heard it all before, but have not yet found a way to turn the situation around.

Smarick, who focused primarily on Camden's education system, noted the possibility of KIPP and other school development organizations coming to Camden. If true, that is good news. Camden's young people and their families certainly could use some alternatives to the failed and failing offerings they currently have.

But Camden doesn't have to wait for KIPP and other school developers to arrive to see what it looks like to provide young people with high-quality alternatives. You can see what might be accomplished by visiting schools like MetEast High School, Camden's very own in-district small high school. MetEast opened in 2005, and has achieved outsized results for the students it serves, helping them to tell a much more positive and hopeful story about themselves and their prospects.

MetEast accomplishments are considerable. Currently, student attendance is over 94 percent. Approximately 80 percent of MetEast students graduate within four years, and 100 percent of those graduates receive at least one college acceptance. The school community is welcoming and safe. School culture is exemplary and the student suspension rate is a tiny fraction of that for most high schools throughout the state. Over 80 percent of MetEast's students consistently pass the Language Arts portion of New Jersey's graduation test. Their math scores are lower, but have been steadily trending upward for the past two years. If you want to probe a little deeper MetEast has established a special web site so that anyone can examine its performance data.

Clearly, MetEast is punching above its weight, and I can tell you why. It's because the principal and faculty pay attention to their students, not just their test scores, but to who they are as young adults -- to their aspirations and interests -- and they build a standards-based curriculum around those interests. And MetEast serves any student who wants to attend -- no skimming.

The school has received lots of recognition for its design and its accomplishments. For example, Tom Vander Ark, former head of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, cited MetEast for its "personalized learning plans and internships that connect their interests to their learning with the result being self-directed thinkers and learners with the skills necessary to succeed in college and beyond."

MetEast has influenced the design of at least seven similar schools in New Jersey and in several other states. MetEast's faculty members stand ready to spread their programs and practices throughout Camden. They believe they can help many more of Camden's young people graduate and go on to successful life-long learning and careers. Further, anyone willing to look carefully will see that there are, however faint, other sources of light in Camden.

I am not naïve about the challenging prospects for Camden's youth. Anyone who believes that a good education alone will significantly change the life prospects of these young people is misguided. The articles by Taibbi and Smarick testify to that judgment.

I also recognize how hard it is to dispute these portraits of Camden and how challenging it is for the community to pull itself up by its bootstraps with so few resources. If, however, there is to be a turnaround, it will be effected by these young people in Camden's schools. We must invest in them.

Inspired by Dr. King, I continue to dream for Camden and its youth. And I'm thinking that it's time to combine that dreaming with another of the great man's strategies, to voice what he called "the fierce urgency of now."

Carlos Moreno is National Director at Big Picture Learning and lives in New Jersey.