GSE Alumnus Walks 40 Miles to Try to Save Camden Schools

Dr. Keith Benson has deep roots in the city of Camden. He has lived there since 2000 with family who has been there for generations, he met his wife there, and his daughter currently attends school in the district. Benson also completed his dissertation on the Camden School District and renaissance schools, recently publishing a book “Education Reform and Gentrification in the Age of #CamdenRising: Public Education and Urban Redevelopment in Camden, NJ” (2018) related to the topic. With there being a host of issues surrounding the Camden School District, Benson decided to make a bold move to draw attention to them – walk 40 miles in three days, from Camden to Trenton, to speak at a hearing being held. Although his main concern is Renaissance schools, there were several topics he chose to highlight. “One, there’s a reported funding deficit in our district of about 27 million dollars. So, I wanted to draw some attention to that and because we are not the only urban district that has been going through similar things. At the same time, that funding deficit was a rationale on why our state superintendent was planning on closing two public schools and laying off hundreds of our educators. Thirdly, what I am very keenly aware of, is that a branch of schools that are only in Camden are fueling these deficits. Fourth, because those schools are so under-enrolled, these school closures are sort of political in nature and forcing our students to go inside these renaissance schools, much to the demise of our public schools.”

So, what is a renaissance school? “Renaissance schools are like charter schools, but they were forced on the city through the legislature, not through the traditional charter needs where a group of educators get together and give an alternative delivery of education that doesn’t exist in public schools. Renaissance schools only exist in Camden, which is the topic I did my dissertation on. Camden has about 15,000 kids with over 40 schools. What precipitated the walk was that I have been writing op-eds about this for years. My book on the subject was published and it got to a point where there’s only so much talking and writing you can do on a subject and still not get the traction. I tried to do the next thing which was in terms of escalation to get attention and awareness, which in this case was walking,” states Benson.

Benson’s journey started in Camden and on the third day ended up at the State Board of Education. Three days is a long time and the trip came with up and downs. “Initially, there were a lot of people at the start as a send-off because I’m aware that 40 miles is really a lot for some folks. At the time, the very first day also coincided with a demonstration by students of Veterans Memorial Family School, who were upset their school was getting closed. A lot of them walked out, so I passed them on my way, which was just serendipitous. It was nice to see the kids out there doing their demonstration as I was doing my own,” says Benson.

While his send-off was filled with supporters, the loneliness of completing the walk on his own started to set in, but Benson never wavered. He says, “there was a lot of corresponding with folks via social media but until the last day, the trip was really solitary. But, I know I had a lot of support through social media and over the phone. What was really time-consuming was just reflecting on what it was I was doing, all the things I was told about what the district was planning on enacting, and also how wronged our schools and communities have been treated over the last 5 years. I was really just hoping some attention would be garnered and that I would be able to sit down and have a talk with the Commissioner or someone who could make a decision to recognize how wrong these things are and intervene.”

After making the journey through a third of the state, across highways and neighborhoods, the end of his journey arrived as he stepped into the State Board of Education meeting where he was set to deliver testimony. “The reaction in Trenton was very little, if anything. The Commissioner, who I was hoping to see at the State Board of Education meeting while I actually gave testimony was not there. Then I was informed that Commissioner never attended the testimony or the second part of the State Board of Education meeting. Fortunately, however, I have been able to meet Commissioner Repollet a few times since that walk and I thoroughly believe he truly has the best interest of Camden’s public schools at heart – and that alone is a huge departure from recent Commissioners of Education.”

There were people there waiting for Benson and ready to cheer on his accomplishment that day as well. Benson reflects, “seeing the kids and the community there, seeing some representatives from NJEA, and seeing some folks from the news there was really overwhelming. I actually cried when I got there. One, I didn’t think I would be able to make it and sometimes I take on challenges where I’m forcing myself to do something, very similar to how I took on my doctoral studies at Rutgers, where I’m not really confident I’d be able to get it done. And by the time you get finished something, a real true challenge, sometimes it gets overwhelming and that feeling of being finished was overwhelming. Like, ‘I really walked 40 miles’, and especially to see that people were out there supporting me, that was really overwhelming to see the kids cheering, I just dropped to my knees and cried. I wasn’t expecting such public support and that really wasn’t what this was for. Initially, I was planning on making that walk over night and it was just going to be solitary thing but the more I thought about it the more it felt like something I really needed to do as a statement.”

Benson has had conversations with stakeholders since the walk not knowing either way what the conversations or the walk would yield. “A lot of the time, we get conditioned to hope to see a happy ending, but Camden is really different and the community that surrounds Camden is really different. We’re not only talking about education; we’re talking about redevelopment and possible displacement. We’re talking about land and education, and here, the sphere of public education is collateral damage. In all, the linking of land, demographics, redevelopment and the future of public education in Camden is largely being driven by what a few influential people want to see for Camden. So what I’m hoping to ascertain is Trenton’s willingness to see traditional public education exist and thrive here in the future for Camden and its residents. This is really what it is about. I don’t really know what the results of these talks will be, but this situation we’re dealing with is unlike any other place in New Jersey. The narrative around it and the truth existing here in Camden won’t be like any other place in New Jersey and it’s so different but really hasn’t been given a lot of the in-depth coverage it deserves,” says Benson.  

His passion for the Camden community also stems from the amount of support he received while pursuing his doctorate at the GSE. “My time at GSE was wonderful. The faculty and the staff were so supportive in helping me craft my study and packaging it in a way where it made sense and something that can presented in where people could understand it in a coherent fashion. My study was not solely education-based as much as it was showing how education reform works with urban redevelopment. My study had a lot to do with looking at urban education reform and urban studies and urban land usage. That’s not really typical in education research, but my mentors at the GSE were really supportive and recognized that the value of my research to the public,” Benson reflects.

Benson shares his final thoughts and hopes for the Camden community: “Ultimately, I hope that my effort fuels an effort to rethink and, ultimately, repeal the Urban Hope Act which established the forcing of imposed renaissance schools inside Camden. There’s only so many kids in the city, there’s a finite amount of dollars within our District budget to where in order for one sector of schools to gain, the other one has to lose. And, the time we’re spending as a union of educators and community, the time we’re spending focusing on survival, is time we could have been working with the district trying to make our schools the best places for our kids – and those are conversations I would love to have and a partnership with the district I would love to build. We should be answering questions like the best pedagogical approaches for our students, how to find ways to increase recess for all our students, how to bring 21st century electives to our children for creativity, how can we increase critical thinking and societal awareness, and provide greater access to technology. At present, however, we can’t have those conversations because we’re spending most of our energies fighting to exist. Hopefully the walk, if anything, showed the unity between educators and the community and actually got some attention to what our public schools and Camden community are dealing with here.”