Many of the elementary students in Camden's long-troubled public schools wish they attended a different school, according to a survey conducted this year, and more than half of the parents surveyed feel the same way.
Administrators and teachers still struggle to connect with parents about how they can best work together, Camden Superintendent Paymon Rouhanifard told the state Board of Education on Wednesday, and standardized test scores remain largely flat.
But in the roughly 15,000-pupil district, more students graduated from high school this year than last, Rouhanifard said, enrollment in prekindergarten programs is at an all-time high, and students of all ages say they feel safer when going to school.
"We're really pleased with where we are," Rouhanifard told the board at its meeting at the Burlington County Institute of Technology in Westampton. "And we've got a lot of work to do."
It was a familiar refrain from Rouhanifard, who since his 2013 appointment by Gov. Christie has sought to showcase incremental gains while acknowledging the district's challenges.
Rouhanifard reports to the state Board of Education and not Camden's school board, which was downgraded to an advisory role after last year's takeover.
Rouhanifard has about seven months remaining of the ambitious 18-month plan he presented last winter for the district. That plan set goals for improving school safety, facilities, educational quality, parent and family engagement, and the efficiency of the district's central office.
On Wednesday, he reported a 42 percent increase in the number of middle-school students who feel safe outside of their school, and a 34 percent increase for high schoolers. He cited new security cameras and an investment in the Safe Corridors program. The district is working on a five-year plan to address crumbling buildings, he said, and modernize the schools in other ways.
Though test scores have not changed substantially, Rouhanifard said, the district has been providing more support than ever to teachers, administrators, and students in the form of coaching, professional development, and mentoring.
Since taking office, he has held frequent meetings with teachers, parents, and families, and brought in Spanish translators to board meetings to work with non-English-speaking parents, he said. That outreach was not reflected in surveys given to parents seeking feedback about the schools; just 25 percent of parents responded to them. "That raises a red flag in my mind," said board member Ronald Butcher. Member Edithe Fulton agreed.
Rouhanifard said the district has been aggressive in going after parents for feedback, passing out surveys at parent-teacher conferences, and knocking on their doors. Many parents in Camden work multiple jobs and struggle to make time for school meetings, he said.
"We're going to continue to try and meet parents where they are," he said.
Under Rouhanifard, the city's charter and "Renaissance" schools have expanded, and he has faced critics who fear that his plans will lead to a dismantling of the traditional public school system. Members of the opposing group Save Camden Schools of NJ, a local branch of a state grassroots organization, have said that charters siphon much-needed funds away from the traditional public schools and that, under the state's control, the district will be privatized.
Keith Benson, a Camden High School teacher and member of the Camden Education Association, said some residents like Rouhanifard on a personal level but fear the state takeover has stripped them of any power in their own district. "People are beginning to warm up to him, but a lot of our concerns are bigger than just him," he said.
Rouhanifard acknowledged his critics Wednesday, but said that as he has continued meeting with educators and parents, he has earned support from additional city residents. In the coming months, he said, he will begin work on the next plan for the district, a process he said would be public and dependent on input from the community.