“I’m So Thankful I Had a Choice”: Q&A With LaVonia Abavana on Camden Schools

When we launched Eight Cities in 2018, a multimedia storytelling website which became our most popular project of the year, readers loved the close look at system leaders who oversaw dramatic changes in their districts. But we also heard a desire for more local voices — including parents, principals, and educators — to better understand how system-wide reforms were experienced by those on the ground. This conversation with Camden parent LaVonia Abavana launches a series that explores school reform and choice from a variety of perspectives in advance of the 2020 relaunch of Eight Cities.

When the state of New Jersey took control of Camden Public Schools in 2013, Camden community members had plenty of reasons to be skeptical given the district’s long history of corruption and financial and academic struggles. As our profile of Camden in EightCities.org explains, state control also introduced Renaissance Schools, a model where nonprofit partners take over schools on the verge of closure. These schools retain the existing student body and must serve students in their neighborhood.

LaVonia Abavana, a Camden native with three children of her own, had never heard of Renaissance Schools when she was faced with a tough choice for her youngest son. 

In this conversation, she tells us about navigating school options with a special-needs child and offers advice for parents.

This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

I had a chance to read a moving piece you wrote about your son KingSebastian. Can you share more of his education story?

When [KingSebastian] was going to his old school, in Camden Public Schools, we had a really, really hard time with bullying because of his Tourette Syndrome. We dealt with bullying from every level of leadership. Nobody understood what it was, and he was getting sanctioned for it and punished for it. His confidence was really, really low. Even though I tried to give him positive talks and everything, he just did not want to go to school.

After two years of trying to work things out with no success, I did a vigorous search for a different school. I talked to my neighbors and the community members I see every day, I went on Camden Enrollment, I looked at the Camden Enrollment booklet that shows you all of the schools’ growth rates and academics, and so forth. I’d never heard of a Renaissance School before, and I was kind of scared. But after calling [a Renaissance School network in Camden],* I felt kind of confident. So I put him in [a Renaissance School in Camden]. 

What has KingSebastian’s experience been like since transferring schools?

KingSebastian has developed so well since he’s been at [his new school]. After just one month of him going there, he loved going to school. He wanted to do his best; he felt supported. No one was bullying him about his Tourette Syndrome. It was absolutely amazing. Every month he would get “scholar of the month,” perfect attendance, and homework superstar. And he got one of the highest PARCC scores.

He’s given presentations; he’s sure about himself. He spoke to the news about Black History Month. It’s amazing how he’s just breaking out of his shell and being the best child that he can be. The partnership and support I receive from the school are amazing. 

I just appreciate the fact that I had a choice in selecting the right fit for my son. I’m grateful. This school was the best fit for my family because without it, I would have to put him into a private school, and I can’t afford that. That would have been a serious challenge for me.

What was your experience with the Camden Enrollment system?

I wanted something different because we tried to work with the school and I didn’t feel comfortable sending him back into his old school. When he got stressed by things in his school, that made his Tourette Syndrome go off more. It got to a level where he was falling back and the doctor had to take him out of school.

I did everything from my home. I went online, I had to fill out his grade level, his full name, where he was currently in school, and then I put my choices down. I think I had to pick three schools. I put [the Renaissance School in Camden] as my first choice. When he got accepted, I didn’t know until the school called me and said that we have a seat open for him. I was so happy. 

Have you had any transportation challenges with your son’s new school?

We had some challenges in the beginning because he’s under the two-mile range [that would qualify him for bus service]. But I would have to take two buses to get him to school. He has a 504 plan that should have him covered, but this year the school district said he wasn’t eligible for a school bus. But [his new school] has a courtesy bus that now comes to pick him up.

For the first two weeks of school, I had to take him on my own and use public transportation. I would leave the house at 6:22 in the morning and get to school by 7:15 using two buses. And I just have to share this with you: when he got denied for busing, my son was like: “I don’t care mom, I’ll catch two buses.” I can see how much he loves his school by him being willing to sacrifice that time in the morning to catch those two buses just to make sure he gets there instead of transferring to a school that’s close by and walkable.

What advice would you give to a new parent navigating school choice in Camden?

I would give them the same advice that I used: do a vigorous search, talk to their neighbors, call Camden Enrollment, call the schools that they’re planning on sending their child to, and pick the school that is the right choice for their family. I wouldn’t tell them which school. Look at the Camden Enrollment packet of all the schools in the city and see their growth rates and what they offer.

I’m so thankful I had a choice — it makes a difference. I’m so happy about this school. I want people to see how my child has grown in it. It gave me the security I needed. I was scared of him going to school before, and now all that went out the window. I can relax and let him be a kid and learn. The school has changed our lives.

* We have anonymized the schools referenced by interviewees — our goal is to highlight local experiences and allow interviewees to be candid. In the interest of transparency please note that some schools, districts, or networks mentioned have been Bellwether clients. A full list of all our past and current clients is available on our website here.