To the Editor: Collingswood School Bond Referendum Could Address Racial Disparities in Student Achievement


Local organizers of the community group EMBRACING RACE – The Conversation argue that grade-level-aligned schools can help the district attack structural racism reflected in student achievement gaps.

By Mary Anne Degenhart and William Johnson

Good Shepherd Regional Catholic Elementary School. Credit: Matt Skoufalos.

The Collingswood Board of Education is seeking approval of a multi-faceted bond referendum that includes, among other things, the purchase of Good Shepherd Elementary School, which would be renovated to house a district wide 4th and 5th grade “Upper Elementary” school.

It would also involve decommissioning Sharp Elementary School and the sale of Garfield Elementary School.

At its core, the mission of EMBRACING RACE – The Conversation is to dismantle racism.

From that perspective, we see this referendum as a unique opportunity to address school and neighborhood segregation in Collingswood.

We would argue that even if only grades 4 and 5 were combined district-wide, that would go a long way toward addressing systemic issues. But if Collingswood really wants to be the diverse, progressive community that it professes to be, we need to go further. What about grade level schools from Pre-K through 3rd grade as well?

The disparities in school performance among the existing elementary schools in Collingswood reflect the impact of structural racism.

According to the New Jersey Department of Education 2022-23 NJ School Performance Report, four of Collingswood’s five elementary schools reflect that 75 to 85 percent of students met or exceeded state expectations in English Language Arts.

Thomas Sharp Elementary School 2022-23 student achievement performance report. Credit: NJ Department of Education.

The performance report for the fifth school  [Thomas Sharp Elementary] — the one with the highest percentage of economically disadvantaged students (38.2 percent) and the highest percentage of Black/African-American students (17.8 percent) — reflects that just 32 percent of its students met that standard. That is more than 50 percentage points lower than the students at the highest-performing school!

While we can hope that segregated schools and neighborhoods were never the intent of the neighborhood school plan, it has been the result. And unless proactive steps are taken to restructure the schools, we, as a community, are putting our stamp of approval on an unjust plan.


The School Board sees this as an opportunity to acquire a much newer building that will, in effect, replace some of the elementary school buildings that are very old and in need of repair. We see this as an opportunity for much more.

New Jersey has the unfortunate distinction of being ranked the sixth most segregated school system in the country for black students. A lawsuit filed by Latino Action Network and others in May 2018 is still pending, but in its October 2023 opinion, the Court acknowledged New Jersey’s structural racism among New Jersey’s schools.

Collingswood could serve as the model for what true diversity looks like in a school district. We are so fortunate to live in a diverse community (in numbers, at least), but our neighborhoods and schools are segregated. This referendum could pave the way to diversify our schools at every level.

Diversified classrooms across the district will provide a more inclusive, more successful, and more balanced educational system, as well as more stable property values throughout Collingswood. Students and teachers would also benefit from grade-level schools in which teachers can collaborate and share resources among their students and peers.

“Passes or Proof of Collingswood Borough Residency Required” reads a sign outside of Thomas Sharp Elementary School in Collingswood, the only majority-minority school in the district, as seen in April 2024. No other school in the district has such a sign. District officials say it will be removed. Credit: Matt Skoufalos.

Will reconfigured buildings alone eliminate racism? No. Will this change disproportionately burden some neighborhoods more than others. Yes it will. Can we, as a community, embrace these challenges and support one another to mitigate the burden on one community over another? Yes, we can!

Many people have raised valid concerns about transportation. Although the Board has stated that many details cannot be addressed unless and until the referendum is approved, we believe the Board should make some assurances to Collingswood families that it will work with parents and community members collaboratively to help develop a transportation plan.

The Board should also commit to integrating every class through every grade, so that each classroom reflects our rich diversity. Collingswood High School students of color continue to endure racial harassment, and children have been heard using the “N-word” in kindergarten!

Children are not born with biases, but they are immersed in them.

What if students experienced, at a very early age, the beauty of diversity? We have a rare opportunity to transform the culture of Collingswood for generations to come. Can we can embrace and support a new vision for our community?

If you’re still uncertain, let’s talk about it.

The Collingswood contingent of EMBRACING RACE – The Conversation will host an open forum to discuss the potential of this referendum. For updates, please follow us on Facebook or email us.

Thank you.

Mary Anne Degenhart and William Johnson
EMBRACING RACE – The Conversation

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