Universal Companies — the real estate and charter school management entity founded by famed music mogul and entrepreneur Kenny Gamble — is hoping to expand its educational efforts to Camden with the proposal of a new renaissance school there.
Going by the School District of Philadelphia’s definition, the renaissance schools initiative is a major reform program designed to turn around low-performing schools by working with school communities to recruit and select individuals and organizations that have proven track records of operating and supporting high-achieving schools. The goal is to turn underperforming schools into highly effective schools that provide exceptional opportunities for academic achievement.
Universal plans on building and operating the Universal charter school via New Jersey’s Urban Hope Act. New Jersey state Senator Donald Norcross sponsored the Urban Hope Act in late 2011 to provide “a process to permit authorized entities to build, operate, and manage ‘renaissance school projects’ as public schools in no more than three identified failing districts.”
If all goes well — meaning Universal obtains the proper zoning, secures the proper land tract and comes to agreements with both the teachers’ union and school board, Universal Charter School in Camden would open in 2017, said Universal Companies President and CEO Rahim Islam.
“Universal sees an opportunity to deliver and bring a comprehensive approach to education in Camden, similar to what we did in Philadelphia,” Islam said. “Our approach is that we want to work with the New Jersey school districts, and go where they say they have the biggest need.
“The biggest needs equal the biggest challenges,” Islam continued. “And that’s really where we want to be. We are there to help.”
Universal has recently taken over the management of the conversion of five public schools into charters, including Universal Bluford and Universal Daroff Charter Elementary School.
While the proposed Universal Charter School in Camden will be the company’s first brick-and-mortar presence in New Jersey, company officials have established a relationship with the city. In 2005, Universal lent its development expertise to help a development consortium consisting of Keating Construction, the Camden Redevelopment Authority and the New Jersey School Development Authority in their successful development of a large tract of land known as the “Camden Cata Demonstration Project.”
That development led to the creation of a new Boys and Girls Club, along with a state of the art elementary school, demolishing 14 acres of dilapidated buildings, and the refurbishing of a public park.
While that project could cost more than $80 million, this proposed charter school in Camden may become Universal’s greatest challenge to date.
“We’re not saying we have the best educational model known to man, but we do know that it takes a comprehensive solution. Educators need to do a better job, which we believe we can do,” Islam said, noting that he and his team recently met with New Jersey education and political leaders to offer them Universal’s latest project proposal, and received positive feedback. “We are trying to approach education comprehensively, and that’s what we believe is the missing piece.
“The board recognized that we provide an African American-led effort to resolve issues for Black and brown students, and we know those students better than anybody else,” Islam continued. “We know the African-American community better than anyone else, and we’re not saying we know the Latino community better than the Latinos, but we partner with them. When we look at our schools, we’re making progress every step of the way, and now, the community sits at the table with us and talks about what we should be doing next.”