CAMDEN Camden schools superintendent Paymon Rouhanifard embarked on what he said was a "listening tour" after he was named to the post in August.
On Tuesday, the state-appointed leader relayed to the school board and the community what he had heard from parents, teachers, and students in the struggling district and learned from test scores and other data.
One of the most startling statistics, prompting groans from meeting attendees, was that only three students of all those in high school who took the SAT in 2013 tested as college-ready as defined by the College Board.
Rouhanifard called that number a "kick-in-the-stomach moment."
"It is OK if all of our students don't end up with a four-year diploma. There are two-year associates out there, vocational opportunities, multiple pathways to success in life, and I deeply believe that," he said.
"But we can do better than three students. We know we can do better than just three students. We know we have to do better than three students."
He also noted deep concerns among the people he talked to over school safety and the quality of education.
He called the responses unsurprising in a district where 23 out of 26 schools have been labeled failing and only 53 percent of students graduate from high school.
The struggles of the district prompted the state to take it over in June, relegating the school board to an advisory role.
But participation at his four town hall meetings and eight focus groups showed an interest among residents in helping solve the problems, Rouhanifard said.
Rouhanifard visited all 26 district schools and met also with small groups of parents, students, and staff.
Student complaints mostly had to do with safety in and out of schools, facility conditions, limited access to technology, low expectations from teachers, and teacher retention, Rouhanifard said.
Teachers reported a lack of curriculum and instructional support, too much paperwork, disparities in pay scale, and a lack of parental involvement, he said.
A key desire among parents was an easier pathway to engaging with schools.
In a step toward achieving that, Rouhanifard announced that the district would waive a $75 fee parents have had to pay to cover the cost of a background check in order to volunteer. The background checks will still be conducted but not at parental cost.
A district-wide plan, taking into account the tour's findings, will be released in January, Rouhanifard said.
But given the alarm over safety - a report released in the fall showed half of elementary-age students feel unsafe in hallways and bathrooms - the district already has completed a security audit, updated security plans, and along with the Camden County Police Metro Division, has installed a safe corridors program.
The board also approved an auditors report for 2013 that found 11 deficiencies compared with 14 last year.
Among the issues was a failure to comply with certain public school contract laws and grant requirements.
The 2013 fiscal year ended June 30.
Board Vice President Martha Wilson lamented that numerous deficiencies were repeated: "This is three years ago. . . . If I was working in the business world, this wouldn't happen; things that happen here can't happen anywhere else."