Camden School Superintendent Paymon Rouhanifard went to the source to get advice on how to improve the district's abysmal graduation rate.
During a visit Wednesday afternoon to Woodrow Wilson High School, Rouhanifard shared some good news for the struggling district: 62 percent of the Class of 2014 graduated on time, compared with 56 percent in 2013.
"We're proud of the entire school community," Rouhanifard told an 11th-grade English class.
The news was even better for Wilson, which had the highest increase among the city's five traditional and magnet high schools. Wilson's four-year graduation rate improved to 60 percent, up from 10 percent the previous year. Significant gains were also made by English-language learners and students with disabilities.
"We're encouraged by the progress," Rouhanifard, a state-appointed schools chief, said in an interview. "It's not an end point. We still have a lot of work to do."
During a visit to teacher Daneen Webster-Gackou's 11th-grade English class, Rouhanifard asked students for suggestions on how to help them stay on track to graduate and what changes have worked.
One student asked him to turn down the heat, which Rouhanifard said was a common problem in aging buildings.
Alexis Thompson said a more strict attendance policy implemented this year by new principal Keith Miles had made her less likely to arrive after the first bell.
"When I am late, I notice I need to be on time," she said.
Miles said he had sought to change the culture at the school and implement a more rigorous curriculum that will soon include three new Advanced Placement classes, in biology, Spanish, and calculus.
"I want my students to be in class every day and accounted for," Miles said.
There were also sobering statistics gleaned from the annual graduation rate report that the state Department of Education released last week and that Rouhanifard presented for the first time Wednesday.
About one-third of Camden students who entered ninth grade in 2010 did not graduate; about a third of those are still in school. Additionally, nearly half of 615 graduates earned their diplomas through an appeal process after not passing the High School Proficiency Assessment.
The average graduation rate statewide is 89 percent. Camden was the lowest-performing district in Burlington, Camden, and Gloucester Counties.
Rouhanifard said the district's dropout rate fell to 17 percent in 2014, its lowest since 2011.
The state took over Camden schools in 2013 because of poor student achievement. Thousands of students have left traditional public schools to attend charter schools in the city.
Among the high schools, Camden High had the lowest graduation rate, 52 percent. Charles Brimm Medical School had the highest, 96 percent.
Rouhanifard said he was encouraged by the graduation rate gains. He said his plan was to prepare students to enter college or the workforce.
During presentations in Webster-Gackou's class, students told of their passions for the future. One student wants to become an ultrasound technician, another a surgeon, and one wants to join the Air Force.
In one of the most compelling presentations, Rosanna Florentino-Angeles said she hoped to become a school psychologist and help students in need.
"It's not easy to be alone and not have support," she said. "It's just something that I feel in my heart to do."