In Superintendent Paymon Rouhanifard's first 18 months at the helm of Camden's state-run school district, his administration restarted the Safe Corridors program to help kids walk to school, added teacher-support systems such as one-on-one coaching, ushered in new technology, and increased pre-K enrollment to 96 percent.
Rouhanifard has often said the greatest challenges lie ahead: improving school curriculum, test scores, and graduation rates and better preparing the city's students for jobs and higher education. In the coming months, the district will start making what Rouhanifard described as hard choices about the future of the city's lowest-performing schools.
In a series of meetings across Camden neighborhoods last week, Rouhanifard indicated there were no plans to close district schools, despite a surge of public charter schools that opened last year. Instead, he said, forging more partnerships with charters such as Mastery and KIPP could lead to the revitalization and preservation of the city's historic school buildings.
"Where we are struggling the most, we should be OK with asking for help," he told a roomful of parents and students in East Camden last Wednesday night. "In Camden, families want neighborhood schools. And we should not have to sacrifice that."
His remarks drew applause from the more than 50 people in attendance, many of whom were parents of charter school students and who offered rapturous praise.
"Until now, I had no hope," said Sharell Sharp, a Camden native who grew up in the city's Whitman Park neighborhood and mother of a fifth-grade daughter at a Mastery school. "Mastery has given me hope. . . . I think this could be the best thing in our city right now."
Rouhanifard has drawn criticism from some advocates and teachers in the community who fear the public funding diverted to the city's expanding charter network will eat away at an already needy district. David Sciarra, executive director of the Education Law Center in Newark, said last week he believed Rouhanifard's focus on renaissance schools was distracting him from tackling the rest of the district's problems.
"What he should be doing is devoting his time and energy to fulfilling his responsibility to the students," he said. "There are plenty of people out there cheerleading for and marketing these renaissance schools - I just don't see anyone sticking up for the district schools. And in order for things to improve, parents need to know that the district schools are just as promising as the new schools."
In an interview, Rouhanifard reiterated that the district had no plan to phase out traditional public schools but said Camden's buildings were aging and inefficient. Half were built before 1928, and some are so poorly insulated the district had to dismiss students early in winter when the temperature in the halls dropped to 55 degrees. One three-story elementary school has just one bathroom, and many schools must import water because fountains are not safe for use. In many schools, the curriculum is dramatically lacking in rigor, he has said - so much so that even students who excel in Camden end up woefully behind their peers in college.
"There's a clear desire for dramatic change from the parents of district kids," he said. "Letting a school struggle is not an option. . . . And we are faced with a real sense of urgency. We should not wait any longer."
Renaissance schools guarantee placement to every student in each neighborhood, including special education and non-English-speaking students, and are required to provide new or significantly renovated facilities. In the city's Lanning Square neighborhood, the KIPP Cooper Norcross Academy is expected to open a new building in the fall, and Mastery recently announced plans to build a facility in Cramer Hill.
Rouhanifard, who has often met with parents and community members since Gov. Christie appointed him to oversee the 15,000-student district, said even if enrollments at the city's traditional public schools drop, he would consider closing a school only if a high-quality alternative was available in the neighborhood.
"Every family in Camden wants a great neighborhood school," he said. "And every family in Camden deserves that."