Knowledge A to Z Academy Charter School
CAMDEN — Lewis Katz still thinks of himself as a Camden kid, even though he works and lives in Cherry Hill and maintains residences elsewhere.
Katz, 70, grew up near Camden High School, his alma mater. He attended Congregation Beth El in the Parkside neighborhood, where he was raised by his mother after his father died when he was a toddler.
Part of what he remembers about being a Camden kid is “feeling different” from the people he encountered in his adult life as a lawyer and businessman who made a fortune in parking, billboards and sports teams.
He grew up not knowing how to swim — there were no pools in his neighborhood or at the high school. He also didn’t know how to swing a golf club, an important social skill in the world where he made a success of himself.
Now Katz wants to make sure a new generation from his hometown doesn’t feel different. The latest part of that plan is to open a charter school at the site where his synagogue once stood.
Not everyone shares the philanthropist’s vision, however. While the state Department of Education has approved his proposed school, Camden’s Board of Education has opposed it. Some school board members have complained that charters are siphoning money away from the district, which has a state financial monitor and is under additional state reviews for poor performance, low scores in quality measures and misreporting incidences of vandalism and violence.
And the city’s zoning board has not approved Katz’s plan to operate his school inside the Park Boulevard clubhouse of the Boys & Girls Club of Camden County. The school is expected to appeal a zoning permit denial at the board’s meeting on Monday.
“My assumption is they will do the right thing,” said Katz of the zoning meeting, which he’s not attending. “I love the city. I’ve never left. I love what the city gave me.”
The educational venture — to be called Knowledge A to Z (KATZ) Academy Charter School — is scheduled to open in September for students in kindergarten through fourth grade.
Because the Boys and Girls Club is geared toward providing after-school activities, the facility sits idle during the day. The site previously housed a daytime program for city students who needed special help, but the program lost funding.
That turned the building into an underutilized asset and cut off rental income the club had used to support its programs.
“My dream for Camden kids is they should have a level playing ground,” Katz said during an interview.
“I want them to have the opportunity….I want them to have the best education we can put together for them, to have the same opportunities they would have if they grew up in Haddonfield.”
Katz began leveling the playing field 11 years ago by paying for the construction of the Parkside Boys & Girls Club, named in honor of his parents. It occupies the site of his former synagogue. He now has Garrison Architects of Marlton working on improvements for the Charter School.
Then Katz, who sits on the national board of the Boys & Girls Club, built another clubhouse in East Camden. It even has a golf hole.
“It’s the nicest Boys & Girls Club in America,” said Katz, who’s among a group of wealthy investors attempting to buy the Philadelphia Inquirer, the Daily News and their websites for a reported $60 million.
Gene B. Sperling, now the director of the National Economic Council, challenged Katz to create a charter school in Camden during a Global Initiative meeting hosted by former President Bill Clinton five years ago.
Katz and the charter’s co-founder, Marcella Dalsey, began research, including a visit to a charter school in Las Vegas created by retired tennis pro Andre Agassi. They consulted with Joe Conway and Bill Helmbrecht, founders of the Promise charter schools in Camden.
Dalsey said the plan for the KATZ school is to create a model for other Boys & Girls Clubs throughout the country, enabling them to better use resources.