A Promise Grows in Camden

By Robert Peterson
Photographs by Richard Bell

A New Jersey charter school started by two Eagle Scouts offers urban youth a challenging educational opportunity and an active Scouting program.

This is the tale of two idealistic Eagle Scouts who founded a charter school in urban Camden, N.J. For seven years they have provided a rewarding and effective education experience for hundreds of students in a depressed, crime-ridden city.

In 2004, the two men also introduced the benefits of the Scouting program to their students, with the formation of Troop 123.

Eagle Scouts Joe Conway and Bill Helmbrecht grew up together in southern New Jersey. The pair worked as counselors at the Southern New Jersey Council's Roosevelt Scout Reservation.

"Growing up, we talked about saving the world," Helmbrecht remembered, "and we always talked about doing something together. I guess it was Joe's idea to start a charter school." (See sidebar)

Before a Troop 123 meeting, Hector Alicea buttons a new Scout shirt over the white T-shirt he wears during the day in compliance with the Camden's Promise Charter School dress code.

Conway and Helmbrecht both had experience as professional educators back in 1998 when they opened Camden's Promise Charter School for sixth-graders in a formerly vacant warehouse. Conway had taught science to sixth-, seventh-, and eighth-graders in a school near Yankee Stadium in the Bronx, N.Y. Helmbrecht was on track to an academic librarian's career, working at Rutgers University in New Jersey after earning master's degrees in education and library science.

"We had help in getting started from experts in finance and management who also happened to be Scouters," Conway recalled. "That first year there were a hundred kids [enrolled as sixth-graders]."

Adding classes

The middle school has grown by an additional hundred students each year as a new grade is added. Four years ago, when the original sixth-graders were ready for high school, the Camden Academy Charter High School was added.

The academy graduated its first class of 91 students last spring. In four years of high school, the class had no dropouts (although nine students moved away). Of its graduates, 48 enrolled in four-year colleges, 30 in two-year colleges, and 13 in trade schools.

That record is especially gratifying, say the school's founders, because the students who transfer into Camden's Promise from Camden city schools tend to have mediocre school records.

"We get mostly C students whose parents think they should be doing better academically as well as students whose parents worry about their safety in the local public schools. Most of our students, through the national definition, are defined as at-risk," Helmbrecht explained.

However, as the results show, the school's program is exactly what most of its students need.

"The average student we get is scoring at about a fourth-grade level when they're coming into sixth grade," Helmbrecht noted. "Last year, our average eighth-grader scored at a 10th-grade level—up six grades in two and a half years!"

Rigorous and rewarding

Parents understand that Camden's Promise and Camden Academy will provide their children with a rigorous but rewarding experience.

With assistance from an adult leader, the new Scouts learn how to start a fire.

"Parents know that when kids come into this building they will be safe....We have strong discipline, and if a child doesn't show up, we make a phone call home to find out why," said Joe Conway.

There is a dress code: Middle school boys wear khaki pants and a white shirt, with an optional burgundy sweater; girls wear a khaki or burgundy skirt and white blouse. High school boys are expected to wear ties.

About 85 percent of the students come from low-income families and are eligible for free or reduced-price lunches.

"Most have single parents," Helmbrecht said. "And because that parent is typically the mother, there's a need for male role models. Because of this situation, we believe there is a definite need for the Boy Scout troop in our school."

The school does have strong parent involvement, Helmbrecht added, but it's different from a typical suburban school.

"Most of our parents are working several shifts or have additional responsibilities, and they can't come to school on a regular basis," he said.

But parents are expected to come to "report-card night" to find out how their child is doing, and they are welcome to visit with teachers regarding any problems.

Classes begin at 8 a.m., and the school closes at 7 p.m. At least three days a week, an average of 200 students, many involved in extracurricular activities, are still at school at closing. In addition to lunch, the school cafeteria serves breakfast and supper to students whose parents work all day.

Band of Eagles

Boy Scout Troop 123 is only one of several after-school activities. There is also a Girl Scout troop, which started last spring, tutoring sessions for homework, a chess club, a variety of sports, and a performing arts class.

There is also a Gentlemen by Choice program offered by Alpha Phi Alpha, a fraternity for African-American men at nearby Rowan University. About 60 male Camden Academy students meet weekly with the fraternity men to talk about character education and life skills.

"I would say that 80 percent of the students participate in at least one of the after-school programs," Bill Helmbrecht said.

At summer camp, Scouts and Venturers enjoy the excitement of riding a zip line.

In addition to Conway and Helmbrecht, three of the other four adult leaders of Troop 123 are Eagle Scouts. They include assistant Scoutmasters Dan Conway, M.D. (who is Joe's brother), Chris Oshman, and Mike Tamagni. Scoutmaster Justin Schoonmaker, the only non-Eagle in the group, also had plenty of Scouting experience as a youth, having achieved Life rank as a Scout in Burlington, N.J.

Of the 105 students he has taught at Camden's Promise, only one had been actively involved in Scouting, Schoonmaker said.

Scouting works well in the charter school structure, he added. "It's an incentive for the boys, and they're ready for their Scout meeting at the end of the school day."

Troop 123's activities are typical of any young troop. At a meeting last April, the Scouts focused on the advancement skills of fire building and fire safety, map and compass, and first aid taught by Dr. Dan Conway. Three months later, when the Scouts joined members of the charter school's Venturing Crew 3123 at Roosevelt Scout Reservation, they tried out canoeing and swimming, and studied outdoor lore.

Venturing to camp

The Venturing crew includes all of the school's ninth- and 10th-grade boys and girls. The crew's Advisor, Jennifer Arasim, is a science teacher who last year was a team leader, or vice principal, in Camden's Promise School. The crew's year-round activities include community service projects and visits to local companies to learn about the world of work.

At Roosevelt Scout Reservation, Arasim directed one of the Venturers' more academic projects. The young people were asked to study a five-foot-square area on a trail to identify plants, answer questions about them, and write an essay about their findings. Here's a typical essay:

"The ground around this area is covered with leaves and pine cones....A large amount of trees take up part of the space....The leaves covering the ground are mostly the same color. They are different shades of brown. Some of them are different colors, such as orange or green. They must have fallen off the trees recently....There is a large [number] of plants growing in this area. There are fern plants, holly plants, and huckleberry plants....Many of the trees are young. I can tell this because they are very thin and not worn out...."

Not bad observations for a beginning naturalist.

During their last two years in Camden Academy, students participate in Learning for Life, the BSA's affiliated corporation that offers in-school character education and coeducational career orientation through the Exploring program.

"As part of the Exploring program, every junior and senior goes out once a month to spend a day in the workforce," said Bill Helmbrecht.

Contributing editor Robert Peterson lives in Macungie, Pa.

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