Rouhanifard sets out next steps for Camden schools

Paymon Rouhanifard announces his vision for schools at Octavius V. Catto Community Family School. (DAVID SWANSON/Staff Photographer)

Camden School Superintendent Paymon Rouhanifard on Wednesday released the next phase of his improvement plan for the city's schools, saying he was seeking to build on signs of progress in the district.

Rouhanifard, appointed by Gov. Christie in 2013 after the state took over the low-performing, 16,000-student district, said reducing out-of-school suspensions, working to prevent gang violence, improving technology in classrooms, and strengthening communication with parents were priorities. His goals for raising the bar in the city's classrooms include updating curriculums and grading policies, increasing the number of vocational programs, and launching a program aimed at addressing chronic absenteeism.

Rouhanifard also spoke about streamlining the enrollment process. Currently, parents must choose from 17 school applications, he said, and a transfer between schools can require parents to go to seven buildings to pick up paperwork.

"The objective here is to create equality in access for all schools," he said.

The district plans to create a new enrollment system, launch a new website, and enable text-message updates for parents for general information about the school system.

Rouhanifard has touted a higher graduation rate, the district's successful pre-K program, enhanced professional training for teachers, and trims in administrative spending, such as a reduction of the central office staff, as positive developments in recent years.

Detractors have criticized Rouhanifard's support of charter-public hybrid "Renaissance" schools, which have expanded in Camden under his leadership. They say the schools are siphoning students from traditional public schools.

Supporters of the new schools, meanwhile, have complained that they are not opening quickly enough to serve all the city's students.

Many of Camden's school buildings are crumbling and outdated, and Rouhanifard has said partnering with successful school operators like Mastery, KIPP, and Uncommon will allow the district to serve more students in modern, updated buildings. Unlike charter schools, Renaissance schools guarantee seats to every child in the school's neighborhood, and must operate in new or renovated buildings. They are publicly funded but privately operated, and have contracts with the district mandating services such as special education.

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