Rutgers-Camden Expanding into Downtown and Improving Outcomes for K–12 Students
Faculty, staff, and students of Rutgers University-Camden have been working for decades to improve educational outcomes for the children of Camden, New Jersey through such initiatives as its highly successful LEAP Academy University Charter School. In 2014, the university reinforced its commitment to Camden by making community revitalization one of the five priorities of its strategic plan. The university’s work complements other ongoing revitalization efforts in the city, including initiatives stemming from the city’s designation as a Promise Zone in 2015. The university has undertaken new off-campus construction projects to help bolster downtown Camden and has maintained its commitment to youth development that will improve residents’ opportunities and quality of life. These revitalization initiatives also benefit Rutgers-Camden by enabling the university to expand academic programs, such as its school of nursing, as well as to attract and retain the best talent. The fortunes and futures of the university and the city are inextricably linked. As Rutgers-Camden senior vice chancellor Larry Gaines puts it, “We can’t maximize our potential if the city doesn’t start to maximize its potential.”
New University Buildings in Downtown Camden
Several of the university’s recent construction projects accommodate Rutgers-Camden’s growth and reinforce downtown revitalization. In 2013, Rutgers opened a $55 million, 12-story, 7,000-square-foot dormitory in the city’s downtown for 350 graduate students. On the first floor, a Subway restaurant and a 7–11 have generated street activity and brought 35 to 55 new jobs to Camden; the retail space contributes to the city government’s coffers through payments in lieu of property taxes, as well as to the state budget through sales taxes. Renovation of the nearby Henry Genet Taylor House, a 19th-century home in the Queen Anne style, was completed at the end of 2015 to provide space for the university’s graduate program in creative writing. The House brings new activity to the area with community workshops and other free events for the public. The project also made a meaningful contribution to the city’s heritage and streetscape, says Gaines, by rescuing a “nationally historic property [that] was in terrible disrepair.” If state funding is secured, the university will build an addition onto the house to accommodate the English department.
The university is developing two other buildings in downtown Camden. Construction of the $62 million Nursing and Science Building on a vacant lot that city officials have identified for redevelopment is scheduled for completion by summer 2017. The four-story building will provide classrooms and laboratories for the university’s nursing, biology, chemistry, and physics programs, and will allow the university to expand its nursing program. The first floor will provide 4,500 square feet of retail space; the university is negotiating with a new tenant, a local business that is being displaced by construction elsewhere in city. Nearby, Rutgers-Camden has joined Rowan University in the construction of a $50 million health sciences center that is slated to open in the 2018–19 academic year.
Partnering with K–12 Schools
Although the university’s construction projects are notable, Gaines says that Rutgers-Camden's most important contributions to the city’s revitalization come from the Office of Civic Engagement, which won a 2015 Higher Education Civic Engagement Award from The Washington Center and the New York Life Foundation. Among the office’s major initiatives are its afterschool and summer school programs, which serve 400 students in grades 4–8 from 5 schools in North Camden, a neighborhood next to the Rutgers-Camden campus. The afterschool program Ignite! began in 2012 at the request of the school district superintendent to provide physical education, remediation classes, and field trips. The program also offers classes and activities in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM). According to Nyeema Watson, Rutgers-Camden’s associate chancellor for civic engagement, the STEM-based program is especially important because recent state examinations showed that students were struggling with these subjects. More broadly, Watson says, the classes help address the underrepresentation of students of color in STEM fields.
Rutgers-Camden also sponsors the Rutgers Future Scholars program for academically promising seventh graders from city schools whose parents did not go to college. The university offers support to 50 students through high school, bringing them to campus, helping them understand the transition to college, and ultimately paying all four years of tuition for program participants who attend Rutgers-Camden. Of the 150 students who have gone through the program, 90 have enrolled in the university. Through Ignite! and Rutgers Future Scholars, students can interact with and benefit from their experiences with university students and faculty from grade four through high school, says Watson. Moreover, the programs “let families know, ‘Rutgers is here for you,’” she says.
The Office of Civic Engagement also helps Rutgers-Camden faculty develop partnerships with community organizations and then create courses that work with these groups. Approximately 80 faculty members have participated in the program, conducting 90 courses every year. Another civic-learning initiative is the Civic Scholars program, in which 50 university students annually commit to 300 hours of civically engaged work. These programs, says Watson, “have restructured learning,” enabling “students to see the day-to-day realities of Camden” from the perspective of the city’s permanent residents.
Continuing with the Strategic Plan
The university continues to realize the strategic plan priority of community revitalization through construction and community development. In 2013, the university, Cooper’s Ferry Partnership (a consortium of groups that facilitate public-private partnerships to revitalize Camden), and the Camden Neighborhood Association collaborated on a successful Wells Fargo grant application that provided significant funding for the Neighborhood Action Plan for Cooper-Grant/Central Waterfront. The plan, released in July 2015, recommends that policymakers and planners draw on the strengths of anchor institutions such as Rutgers-Camden to redevelop the city’s downtown and waterfront, improve quality of life for current residents, and attract new ones. The three organizations are seeking funds to implement the plan, says Joe Myers, chief operating officer of the Cooper’s Ferry Partnership. The university is strengthening its academic commitment to civic engagement. For example, the College of Arts and Sciences recently changed its curriculum to require that all students take a course in engaged civic learning. Together with the university’s expansion into the downtown and youth development programs, these initiatives are poised to transform Camden.
Community Leadership Center. n.d. “About the Center.” Accessed 19 April 2016; Rutgers University-Camden. 2014. “Shaping Our Future: Strategic Directions for the Campus, 2014–19.” Accessed 9 March 2016; U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. n.d. “Promise Zones Second Round Urban Designees: Camden.” Accessed 18 April 2016; Interview with Larry Gaines, 28 March 2016; Interview with Nyeema Watson, associate chancellor for civic engagement, Rutgers University-Camden, 7 April 2016.×
Rutgers University-Camden. 2012. “Retail Attracted to New Rutgers Student Housing in Camden,” Rutgers-Camden News Now (November). Accessed 9 March 2016; Interview with Larry Gaines, 28 March 2016; Rutgers University-Camden. 2016. “Our Writers House: An American Queen Anne Revival.” Accessed 18 April 2016.×
Interview with Larry Gaines, 28 March 2016; New Jersey Office of Legislative Services. n.d. “Institutional Response,” 20, in response to: New Jersey Office of Legislative Services. 2015. “Analysis of the New Jersey Budget, Fiscal Year 2015–16: Higher Educational Services.” Accessed 8 March 2016; Interview with Nyeema Watson, associate chancellor for civic engagement, Rutgers University-Camden, 7 April 2016.×
Interview with Larry Gaines, 28 March 2016; The Washington Center. n.d. “Higher Education Civic Engagement Awards: 2015 Recipients.” Accessed 8 March 2016; Interview with Nyeema Watson, 7 April 2016.×
Interview with Nyeema Watson, 7 April 2016.×
Interview with Nyeema Watson, 7 April 2016.×
Interview with Joe Myers, 6 April 2016; Document supplied by Cooper’s-Ferry Partnership; Interview with Nyeema Watson, 7 April 2016.×