CAMDEN — You want The High?
You got The High.
Camden High School, a sprawling, $132.6 million, four-school campus on the footprint of the old Castle on the Hill, will welcome at least 900 students on the first day of school, but last week, a group of state officials, city leaders and a small cohort of students took a tour as workers put the finishing touches on the 270,000-square foot structure.
“You want The High, you got The High, right?” someone asked Vic Carstarphen as he stood in the brand-new Clarence Turner Gymnasium, in the center of the Dajuan Wagner Court.
“That’s right!” answered the former Camden High basketball star and coach, and current Camden mayor. “Nobody ever lied about that!”
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Carstarphen was on the court once again with his onetime teammates Wasim Muhammad (known then as Donnie Walker) and Denny Brown. They “couldn’t stop reminiscing,” Muhammad said as the trio took in the brand-new building.
A storied history
It was hard not to see and hear echoes of the storied school’s past; from the moment students enter, they are greeted by large stone features that came from the original Camden High, built in 1916 and demolished to make way for the new school in 2017.
Those stone edifices are placed throughout the entire campus, which has enough space for 2,000 students and will house Camden High School as well as the city’s three magnet schools: Creative Arts Academy; Big Picture Learning Academy; and Brimm Medical Arts. The marble sign with the Camden High Panther remains, moved from its original spot on Park Boulevard to the interior parking lot, near the main student entrance.
The original archway and stairs have been installed on Park Boulevard, making for a new Castle on the Hill. Inside the main atrium, terracotta sections of the wall panels are hung, still bearing these words: “The end of all knowledge should be in virtuous action” (Sir Philip Sydney); and “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom” (Proverbs, 9:10).
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Students and fans will see the old center court logo inside the entrance before entering the main gymnasium, the years of Camden High’s state champion teams surrounding the school mascot. The original 1916 cornerstone and a time capsule are also on display in the main building. An old phone booth, probably as much a relic to today’s kids as any other item in the school, offers an interactive feature that includes Camden High alumni telling stories and recalling their experiences at the old school.
Looking back, looking forward
But the Camden High Campus, as it will be known, is more about the future and the students who will shape it.
“It’s so great for the kids,” said Superintendent Katrina McCombs, a Camden High alumna and former cheerleader. “This is really exciting, a chance for all of us to come together and breathe and say, ‘We did it.'”
She paused in the atrium and noted the proverbs on the wall, remembering how she and her classmates once passed those words each day on their way into school.
“They are proverbs, but they also helped guide us,” she said. “And we wanted to make sure that for the next generation, they’re able to see some of the things that guided us through. It’s so important that there was that mix of traditional, historical, with the new, in the new building’s concept.”
Laniyah Young and her friend Elijah Dawson giggled and smiled for iPhone photos as they walked through the school. Young, a senior at Brimm, said she’s excited to be part of the first graduating class; Dawson, who goes to Creative Arts, agreed.
‘A better learning environment’
As she walked alongside city spokesman Vince Basara, former mayor Dana Redd marveled at the green courtyards where students can gather, and the windowed walkways that overlook them.
“Remember those dreary old courtyards?” she said to Basara. “How dreary the old hallways were toward the end?”
“I was thinking about it this morning, how great it is to see this vision become reality,” she said later. While Redd was mayor, the state took over the school district and it remains under state control now; then-Gov. Chris Christie was the one who made the formal announcement that the old school would be razed and rebuilt.
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“This is an iconic building that really speaks to the future, to our youth. I am pleased to see elements of the old incorporated, and when the community gets to see how the history is here, I hope they will be pleased.”
Redd, who now leads the Rowan University-Rutgers-Camden Board of Governors, also said the board will work the the district to partner on STEM programs for students at the school.
Alluding to the controversy that surrounded the demolition of Camden High, she said, “The kids deserved a better learning environment. So we saw the need to secure funding to build a new high school, so our students can learn in a 21st-century environment, and be prepared for 21st-century jobs. We also want our teachers to be able to do their jobs, to have the technology and the resources they need to prepare students” for college and careers.
Manuel Da Silva, CEO of the New Jersey Schools Development Authority, said the school’s history was an integral part of the planning for the new school — not only because the state’s Historic Preservation Office required it, but because the community demanded it over the course of “countless” meetings.
“There were two components to the design: The local community was very much a part of the design process. And the students themselves were part of it, letting us know what they wanted out of their school.”
Muhammad, now the School Advisory Board president, took a few minutes at center court to take in the scene.
“I’m overwhelmed, just feeling pride,” he said. The controversy over the new school, he said, “was deserved. Camden High School was an institution.”
He’s hoping, though, that his fellow alumni will see the new school, with its wide-open spaces, abundant natural light, a cafeteria overlooking Farnham Park and state-of-the-art classrooms, auditorium, black box theater, dance studio, STEM classrooms and science labs, art studios, entrepreneurial and maker spaces, broadcast studio, computer and robotics labs and modern locker rooms and weight room, and it will “help change their mindset.”
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The former basketball player is anxious to see what the current Camden High teams can do — and he’s happy they can finally compete on a home court of their own, and prepare in locker and weight rooms as nice as any of their suburban competitors.
Two of those players, Qua’meer Amin and Teron Murray, were on hand for the tour as well, wide-eyed at their new home court after playing at various venues all over the city.
Murray, a sophomore at Big Picture Learning Academy, is the grandson of Louis Banks, one of Muhammad’s teammates and the leading scorer on the 1985-86 team that went undefeated. He’s looking forward to being under the same roof as his Panthers teammates during the school day.
“It feels great to keep this legacy alive,” said Amin, a senior point guard. “It’s great to finish my last year at school somewhere that’s home, that’s really home.”
Phaedra Trethan has been a reporter and editor in South Jersey since 2007 and has covered Camden and surrounding areas since 2015, concentrating on issues relating to quality of life and social justice for the Courier-Post, Burlington County Times and The Daily Journal. She’s called South Jersey home since 1971. Contact her with feedback, news tips or questions at [email protected], on Twitter @By_Phaedra, or by phone at 856.486-2417.
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