For Bryan Morton and Parents for Great Camden Schools, the fight for a great school in every neighborhood is the best way to ensure that no child in Camden, New Jersey, falls into the pre-K-to-prison pipeline.
Parents for Great Camden Schools (PGCS) is, in many ways, built in the image of its founder. A native of Camden, Morton grew up seeing police officers, firefighters and schoolteachers who looked like him.
Educated in the Camden City Public Schools (CCPS), Morton attended the only public schools available to him. He excelled early and tested into gifted and talented programs.
By the time Morton entered high school, Camden looked very different. The municipal unions had negotiated away city workers’ residency requirements, creating an exodus of the African-American workers Morton grew up emulating.
“By high school, the Black middle class was gone, taking the tax base [and funding for public education] with them,” he said.
In ninth grade, Morton started a new school in a new neighborhood but soon dropped out of school out of fear for his safety and massive in-class disruption. Within a year, he was arrested for distributing narcotics and sent to juvenile detention.
“As a young, black, male I was desperately in need of guidance and role models, and I found them on the street corner, not in school,” Morton said.
Morton beat the odds — temporarily. He earned his General Equivalency Development (GED) diploma in juvenile detention at 16 and enrolled in college at 17. While he had overcome a lot to get to Rutgers University-Camden, he’d never written a research paper or taken algebra or geometry. Like similarly situated college students, lack of preparation led him right back out the same door he entered.
Unsurprisingly, Morton was arrested again, this time for assault and armed robbery. While incarcerated, he again distinguished himself among inmates who could barely read or write.
“I helped other inmates with legal research, how to get a GED, and write home,” he said. “Because they couldn’t even tell their letters apart.”
After being released, Morton returned to Rutgers-Camden, graduating in 2010 with a degree in Urban/Metropolitan Planning Development. By 2011, Morton was giving back to his community through the Camden Neighborhood Baseball and Softball Association (CNBSA), which he founded. CNBSA started in neighborhoods so tough that Morton had to negotiate with drug dealers to vacate the playing fields in order to ensure children competed in peace. Today, not only is CNBSA the recreation and mentoring program Morton wished he’d had as a child, it serves as an “Anti-Prison Pipeline,” supporting over 750 kids.
CNBSA organized other sports groups in Camden into a cohesive voice, in order to partner with city government and nonprofits to secure more than $25 million in funds for the development of green spaces in the city. Over time, parents began to see Morton as their leader. In 2013, his reputation got the attention of then-school-district Superintendent Paymon Rouhanifard.
New Jersey had just passed the Urban Hope Act (UHA), which allowed school districts for the first time to contract with nonprofits, such as charter school management organizations, to build (or substantially reconstruct) and operate public schools.
Dr. Rouhanifard was looking for parental support for the UHA, and Morton’s little league association had the strongest parent network around. With support from Morton’s little league parents, the district adopted “renaissance schools” — schools it gave to charter management organizations to renovate, manage, and operate. Of the 15,000 students enrolled in Camden Public Schools, the district reports that 25 percent now attend renaissance schools managed by KIPP (the Knowledge is Power Program), Mastery Charter Schools, and Uncommon Schools.
Camden is one of the nation’s poorest cities. Before it embraced renaissance schools, 23 of the city’s 26 public schools scoring in the bottom 5 percent in New Jersey. Since then, district schools have improved, led by renaissance schools. According to a 2019 study by Stanford University’s Center for Research on Education Outcomes (CREDO), learning gains in Camden’s renaissance schools increased from below the state average in 2015-16 to well above it in 2016-17 in both reading and math. Traditional district schools also improved, but much less rapidly. Meanwhile, the district’s on-time graduation rate increased from 49 percent in 2012 to 69 percent in 2019.
From his living room, Morton is leading PGCS to ensure educational equity for Camden students even during COVID-19. To Morton, “Democracy is not a noun, it’s a verb, you have to be active!” Since 2015, PGCS has been extremely active, meeting with thousands of families to discuss ways to improve educational opportunities in the city.
Morton sees PCGS as an extension of the Anti-Pre-K to Prison Pipeline work he started with his little league program. The organization advocates for better schools, improved transportation to schools, better special education and bilingual services, and a world-class teacher in every classroom.
PGCS recruits and trains Parent Advocacy Leaders (PALs) to act as frontline organizers. They go door to door to tell parents and grandparents about the performance of their children’s schools, other schools they might choose, and current policies that might harm their children’s education. They also help families with Camden Enrollment, a family-friendly application that makes it easier to apply to district schools outside their neighborhood, renaissance schools, and public charter schools.
PGCS has also created an eight-week program to increase parent participation, called The Parent Leadership Academy. Graduates who become Parent Advocacy Leaders are paid a stipend. To date, PALs have held community meetings and knocked on 30,000 doors, speaking with 15,000 community members and signing up 8,500 members of PGCS to demand change.
“The work we do at PGCS is so that another generation isn’t lost,” Morton said. “I lived through the pre-K-to-prison pipeline already. Our mission to mobilize and strengthen the voice of every Camden parent to advocate for all children to receive a high-quality education will make sure it ends with me.”
Curtis Valentine is deputy director of the Reinventing America’s Schools Project at the Progressive Policy Institute in Washington, D.C., while also serving on the Prince George’s County School Board in Maryland.