First, there was a new name to remove any connection to an embarrassing past. Now, Camden’s Eastside High School, formerly known as Woodrow Wilson High, is getting a sweeping makeover to renovate the nearly century-old structure.
Standing in front of the building on Federal Street in East Camden on Friday, Superintendent Katrina T. McCombs and city officials unveiled what they billed as a $49 million “capital investment” in the Eastside. It is believed to be the largest federal investment ever in the economically disadvantaged school district.
“You are worth more than that,” McCombs told students who joined in the rousing applause at the announcement. “We will use every dime of this wisely.”
A giant tiger statue, Camden’s latest piece of public art, was also officially unveiled on Friday in a park opposite the school. Eastside’s mascot is a tiger, and officials hope it will help instill school pride in ninth- through 12th-graders.
Camden Schools earmarked funding for renovations from Elementary and Secondary School Relief (ESSER) money allocated as part of the American Rescue Plan, awarded to help the nation’s schools recover from COVID-19 when classes were suspended and schools were closed.
“All we want as parents is for our children to have a good chance in life, to have a chance to succeed,” U.S. Rep. Donald Norcross (D., NJ) said in a statement. “This is about our future.”
» READ MORE: Camden’s Woodrow Wilson High School renamed
Opened in 1930 as a high school, Eastside is among the oldest public school buildings in Camden, and many have said it was long neglected. In a state-funded project, the district last year replaced its other comprehensive high school, Camden High, with a sleek, $131 million campus that also houses three magnet high schools.
In January, the school board decided to change the school’s name because of Wilson’s segregationist views and ideas. McCombs sought the change two years ago, citing Wilson’s past and the outcry over the killing of George Floyd by a white police officer in Minneapolis.
“You can change a name, but if you don’t change what goes on inside, nothing matters,” McCombs said.
After the announcement, the escort toured the school, visiting classrooms to see first-hand the improvements needed. In the science room, they gasped when the principal pointed out a rusty lab table that was about 90 years old. In the cosmetology room, the teacher explained that she needs more stations and better lighting to avoid turning off the overhead lights every time she shows the students a white screen.
McCombs said renovations to the 29,300-square-foot school — which will include replacing science labs, art rooms, automotive and cosmetology rooms, gymnasium, auditorium, lighting and HVAC system — will be completed within three years.
» READ MORE: New Camden High School completed for start of school year
Honors student Jaheen Green, 16, a junior, said the project was long overdue. An aspiring basketball player and businessman, Green said it will be important for students to have a new gym floor, lockers, library and computer systems.
“The building is really old,” Green said. “Walking down the hall, you can feel how dated it is.”
Green said he believes the change will help change the image of the Camden school system, a state charter district plagued for years by failing test scores and high dropout rates. Thousands of students have left traditional public schools for charter and Renaissance schools that have opened in the city.
“When most people look at us, they don’t see greatness,” Green said. “I’m here to say that greatness is in all of us.”
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Also Friday, McCombs and Mayor Vic Carstarphen cut the ribbon on a 26-foot-tall metal tiger sculpture erected in Dudley Grange Park, across the street from the Eastside. It was created by Lisa Adler and her husband, Don Kennell, of DKLA Design in Sante Fe, NM.
Adler said it took the team about three months to make the tiger using 60 orange, black, white, tan and brown car hoods salvaged from junkyards, with its head and paws made from new metal. The 8,000-pound statue was transported nearly 2,000 miles to Camden on a semi-truck and installed in the park, she said.
“We probably used all the hoods in our 100-mile radius,” she said. The artists retained the original recycled hood factory paint and the car maker’s markings, which is visible in the 12-foot-tall statue. The couple also created the 32ft tall panther which sits opposite Camden High in Farnham Park.
“People love animals. It’s inspiring,” Adler said.
Carstarphen said he believes the statue will be a destination spot in the 9-square-mile city, especially for selfies. But he warned: “Just don’t climb on the tiger!”