Camden schools' turnaround man

Camden school superintendent Paymon Rouhanifard speaks after at H.B. Wilson Elementary School in Camden in August. He now is seeking proposals for additional Renaissance Schools in the city. One Renaissance School, the Kip-Norcross Academy, is slated to open in 2014. ( RON TARVER / Staff Photographer )

"If you follow some of my critics on Twitter," Camden School Superintendent Paymon Rouhanifard says, "you'd think I was the most loathed person in the city."

Rouhanifard, appointed by Gov. Christie in August despite an arguably light (if lively) resumé, hardly appears loathsome sitting across from me at a downtown Camden Starbucks.

The former New York City and Newark school system administrator seems bright, energetic, and - after less than five months on his $210,000 job - comfortable heading up the beleaguered public school system in one of America's poorest cities.

"A lot of people expected me to come in here, pound my desk, and constantly harp on the negative," Rouhanifard, 32, says. "I don't believe in that approach."

Camden schools made headlines in December after making public that only three of 882 high school seniors taking the SAT (which Rouhanifard describes as "class-biased") scored well enough to be considered college-ready.

And the new year began with the bang of a ruptured pipe that damaged several floors of the district's grand, but decaying, headquarters at Front and Cooper Streets.

"So far, it has not been uneventful," says Rouhanifard, who is preparing to release a strategic plan inspired in part by his district-wide "listening tour" among parents, students, and staff.

The plan, he says, will focus on student safety, improved facilities, universal preschool, "parent-friendliness," and a common application system for district, charter, and parochial schools citywide.

Some Camden residents fear the plan will mean consolidation of cherished neighborhood schools. The superintendent insists any such decision will have less to do with saving money than providing students with better facilities.

"Half of our buildings were built before 1928, when Calvin Coolidge was president," Rouhanifard says. "That's not acceptable."

The superintendent's office also is reviewing applications from seven prospective private operators of "Renaissance" schools, hybrid institutions blending elements of independently run public charter schools and private institutions.

Currently, 23 of the district's 26 schools have failed to meet state standards. One in five students is chronically absent; graduation rates are just over 50 percent.

And as the number of charter schools has grown to 11 and counting, district enrollment has fallen to just under 12,000. That's 7,000 fewer students than during the peak years of the 1990s.

Critics like those Rouhanifard cites are fond of deriding what they call "reformy" moves to improve urban public school systems. They characterize such efforts as smokescreens for corporate takeovers, union-busting, and the disenfranchisement of poor and minority communities.

"The district will be relegated to being just a 'school operator,' " former Camden Board of Education member Jose Delgado writes in a guest post on the blog of Stephen Danley, an associate public policy professor at Rutgers-Camden.

Delgado writes that "citizens . . . will lose control of the educating of their children," and adds that "the traditional neighborhood school concept will be a thing of the past . . . taken over by non-transparent . . . franchises ultimately responsible to the state."

Describing some of the reform and antireform rhetoric as “holier than thou,” Rouhanifard says he prefers listening to parents.

"What they're telling me is, 'We need something different.' They couldn't care less about the governing structure of a school," he says, adding that he is "sensitive" to concerns about public participation.

"I hope I have demonstrated to folks here that I am a fair person, and have meaningful engagement with the community," Rouhanifard adds. "We don't hold a [public] meeting just to hold a meeting."

The superintendent says he has been impressed by staffers, students, and alumni. "There are some incredible people here, there are gems, and there are amazing stories of students who have gone on to college and built careers."

But these stories are "almost epic," Rouhanifard adds; it's as if getting an education in Camden means having to overcome nearly impossible odds.

Says the superintendent, "It shouldn't be that hard."

Editors Note: This story was changed to reflect that Rouhanifard considers some of the reform as well as antireform rhetoric to be "holier than thou."

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