Principal Andrea Surratt talking on the phone at her desk after a long school day. Photo by Frank Rosa

By Frank Rosa

Imagine walking into a doctor’s office to request medication to cope with the death of a student killed by a stray bullet.

That is just a glimpse into the work life of Principal Andrea Surratt and the rest of her staff at Camden Community Charter School.  Back in August, CCCS second grade student, Gabby Carter, was shot in head while riding her bike and died two days later in the hospital.

“I’ve dealt with three of my students dying from stray bullets since I’ve been working in the Camden City School District. But when Gabby died, I had to make an appointment with my doctor to give me something.”

Camden Community Charter School, located across the street from the North Gate Apartment Buildings I & II in North Camden, faces many challenges with students who live in the city.

Third year kindergarten teacher, Lisa Desjardins, offered sight about teaching in Camden.

“Our students are underprivileged.  Some of them have a tough home life. With that, comes a lot of emotional problems,” said Desjardins. “We also deal with the fact that they come to us behind in grade level. I teach kindergarten and very few of my students come in knowing the alphabet or how to count. Many of them cannot identify the letters in their name or even write it.”

IT worker, Brett Hoyt, talks with a CCCS student and his father in the parking lot after school. Photo by Frank Rosa

According to Surratt, the inner city students are also at a disadvantage because parents are sometimes absent in their children’s lives.

“We have parents who have been murdered, different kids might live with their grandparents or aunt.  What do you do when you don’t have that parental support?”

Fourth grade CCCS teacher, Amy Gorski, explains how difficult it is to work in one of the poorest and most dangerous areas in country.

“Working with kids from Camden can be draining.  There are tons of emotional baggage,”  said Gorski. “Knowing that we provide some of these kids with the only food and kindness they will receive throughout the day kind of blows your mind.  Kids come in without the basic training you’d expect a child to have.”

Gorski said many parents are young and lacking in any type of parenting skills.  It’s a rough city and these kids have seen things that suburban students couldn’t even dream of.

Gorski still speaks to former students from Camden who are now in their 20s and in college.  One is studying to be a teacher, another is working in a funeral home, a third a DJ and a young mother trying to get by.

“I am just happy they made it through and still remember me,” said Gorski. “They touched my life just as much as I touched theirs.  They don’t all make it,  that is the hardest part, but the ones that do, it brings me real joy.  This is the hardest job I’ve ever done.”

The teacher salaries at CCCS are a couple thousand dollars less than first year public school teacher salary.  Teachers in charter schools do not have a union either.

Desjardins explained that public schools typically only have a few days of training before the first day of school.  On the other hand, CCCS typically has at least 2 weeks of professional development before the school year starts.  Therefore, charter school staff is quite prepared for when the students come.  CCCS also has staff meetings each week where public schools typically only have one each month.

“My biggest challenge this year is getting my students up to par.  I want them ready to be successful in life.  They have little support at home.  Some kids in 4th grade are reading on a 2nd grade level.  We have to get them there, to give them the biggest advantage we can, just to level the playing field,” said Gorski.