Making the grade in a troubled school district

CAMDEN, N.J. - If you set out to fix America's failing schools, where would you start? How about in Camden, New Jersey - one of the nation's poorest, most dangerous cities. CBS News correspondent Elaine Quijano introduces you to one principal there who's determined to turn her school around.

For the students of this elementary school in one of America's most troubled districts, this year has brought hope through a new, radical approach.

The newly named Wiggins College Preparatory Lab School of Camden, New Jersey is a turnaround school - part of President Obama's $3 billion initiative to remake more than 700 of the nation's worst performing schools.

Pictures: Turning around a troubled school in Camden, N.J.

To receive $2.6 million in federal grants, Wiggins was mandated to undergo major changes by re-training teachers, overhauling the curriculum with intense reading and math programs and bringing in specialists to help struggling kids.

Additionally they extended the school day to 4:30 three days a week and recruited parent volunteers to work with students every week.

The old principal was fired. New principal Lana Murray was brought in. Murray has to show results by June or risk losing federal funding.

"I'm up for the challenge," Murray says. "I'm excited about it. We have a lot of issues here in the school. But we can do it."

CBS News followed Principal Murray's progress since the first day of school. Her efforts are already showing results. Last fall none of the kindergarten kids were reading at grade level. Today, 75 percent are above or on target. Murray attributes this to a change in teaching attitudes.

"Before, you used to hear, 'Well, I taught that - why didn't they get it,'" Murray says. "Now the conversation has turned to, 'How is what I'm teaching affecting the child?'"

The Wiggins fifth graders can already feel the difference. "We got the new things on the computer that we didn't have in fourth grade," says Stefahn Khalid. "Also, every morning we read - and I like to read."

But critics say the turnaround model is a blanket approach that fails to recognize problems unique to individual districts.

"There's no model that says, we're going to send in expert evaluators, educators who really know their stuff and find out why your school is doing so poorly," says former Assistant Secretary of Education Diane Ravitch. "Instead, they're coming in with a hammer and saying - fire the principal. Now there are communities where excellent principals are being fired."

"What has been done in the past has not worked," argues Principal Murray. "So we have to do something differently. Public education has to change if we're going to survive."

"I really want to be a cop," Khalid said. Tamiere Sisco, also a fifth grader, wants to be "a football player." Classmate Labrea Stanley says she wants to be a "doctor or a scientist."

Principal Murray believes the turnaround model is the best chance for these kids to fulfill their dreams.

  • Elaine Quijano

    Elaine Quijano was named a CBS News correspondent in January 2010. Quijano reports for "CBS This Morning" and the "CBS Evening News," and contributes across all CBS News platforms. She is based in New York.