“A ZIP Code Doesn’t Determine Your Ability”: Educators Turn Failure of New Jersey School into Success
Camden, New Jersey –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, it’s not just the boarded up houses you see. There are lives, there are brilliant and magnificent scholars,” Tagoe said. “There are families who love their children, who are passionate about education, passionate about fairness, passionate about change.”
This passion helped turn Camden’s failing public schools into success. Eight years ago, the state took over the schools and transformed them. Once a dilapidated building, Camden Prep is now the best performing school in the area.
The percentage of elementary school children who reached or exceeded grade level in math increased from 3% in 2014 to 60% in 2019. In reading, there was an increase from 4% to 50% over the course of from the same period.
“When you see our kids in action and you see how bright and capable they are, then you understand not to limit them,” Tagoe said.
Unlike other charter schools, there is no lottery admission at Camden Prep. Students can go there because they live in the neighborhood. “It proves that a zip code doesn’t determine your capacity,” Tagoe said.
The program is tailored to the abilities of each student and measures both their academic and emotional progress. The teachers are in daily communication with the parents of the students.
Rashad McCray, a fifth grader, said his teachers would give him one-on-one time when he needed help. “When I go to school I see my teachers and my classmates and I’m like ‘OK, I’m going to be comfortable here,'” he said.
It’s a feeling Tagoe never felt as the only student of color in his elementary school. When she was 5, a boy from school told her, “Don’t touch me, you’re dirty.
“When I think about that moment – especially having dark skin and you know you’re different – I think about why I’m doing this job,” she said. “They’re going to be the next generation to change society and make sure everything is better for them, and better for the next generation after, and that’s a big responsibility. But it’s a great responsibility.”