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Courier-Post: Faculty impressed by changes at Camden High

January 21, 2008
Section: South Jersey News

Camden High School

Fresh paint is now covering some of the graffiti, outside consultants are running professional development sessions and truancy officers are supplementing the diminished security staff.

But the biggest change at Camden High School might have arrived at a Martin Luther King assembly on Friday morning.

Marilyn Segars Jamal, a veteran city educator, took the microphone at the front of the Camden High auditorium and told one student to take off his hat, kicked out another student for talking and announced to the school that she was the new acting principal.

"I promise you, you will achieve success," Jamal said, tearing up. "My tears aren't for fear, my tears are because I'm ready to rise. Are you ready to rise?"

Like a candidate making a campaign speech, she then led the response: "We are ready! We are ready!"

Teachers triggered a major restructuring project at Camden High when they met with the superintendent and school board last month to complain about the school's security problems, staffing shortages and lack of basic resources.

During the first three weeks of January, changes have been implemented, although some teachers complain that problems -- including fighting, out-of-control hallways and threats against staff, and many students still don't have IDs and lockers -- continue, said Kenneth McIntosh, teachers union president.

"It didn't happen overnight, and we're not going to solve it overnight," McIntosh said. Regardless, Jamal's inspiring words -- tempered with an authority aimed at the students -- signaled that it was a new day at the 90-year-old building.

"She was awesome," said Yvonne Blake Ervin, the teacher who organized the assembly. "The whole thing was very positive." Even students were wowed.

"Everything was refreshing -- it was a new face of Camden High," said junior Khalid Ways. The school board could make Jamal's position permanent as early as Tuesday's school board meeting. Spokesman Bart Leff said he did not have information about the fate of her predecessor, Michellea Graves.

Jamal linked the King celebration with the future of Camden High, saying that despite the odds and the perception, the Park Avenue school would once again be called the "castle on the hill."

"I need you students, No.1, to help me restore the pride," she said. "We're going to be resilient in our quest to change."

She told the students to "learn from your ancestors," show up on time each day and respect teachers.

"This is a learning institution, not a correctional institution," she said. Then she addressed the staff: "I know that your spirit needs to be replenished. I know that you thought the city of Camden forgot about you. But your colleagues around the city are praying for you." High schools in Camden have long been beset by violence, crumbling facilities and low graduation rates. But this school year, teachers at the 1,500-student Camden High had enough. McIntosh requested a meeting, which was held Dec. 17 with the Camden High staff, school board and superintendent. It was closed to the public, but a Dec. 23 article in the Courier-Post, based on information from teachers, union leaders and an unmailed letter from the staff, documented the main concerns aired at the meeting: A lack of drinking water, nonworking lavatories, discipline problems, a reduction in the security staff, teaching vacancies and a shortage of substitutes.

Superintendent Bessie Le-Fra Young said last week that it takes time, but the school is "moving toward greatness." "When you have committed people you take it a day at a time," she said. "It is going to be a student-first school. Our work is about education every day."

So far this month, the following changes have been implemented:

Professional development is now a priority. New York-based consultants [from Leadership Transformation Group, LLC] met with the staff during half-day sessions this month, and teachers are gathering in groups dealing with everything from "progressive discipline" to "school beautification."

The following items have been replaced or fixed, according to a district summary distributed to teachers and provided to the Courier-Post: Emergency lights, exit signs, faucets, toilets, showers, ceiling tiles, windows, door frames, fire extinguishers and the intercom. On Friday a water cooler was in the hallway for students and around the corner there was soap in a bathroom. In December, neither soap nor safe drinking water was available for students in those same spots.

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