For 13 Camden kids, help with school and family life arrived in an unexpected place last fall: at home, during visits with district administrators and even the superintendent.

The visits were part of a pilot program aimed at treating the root causes of problems that interfere in the lives of Camden's students and prevent them from succeeding.

Spending time with the struggling students, school officials encountered more easily solvable problems, such as a student who could not get to school safely, to complicated issues such as a child who needed to move to a safer home.

A year later, some of the students' lives have improved in modest ways, said Superintendent Paymon Rouhanifard, and this year the program will expand to 200 kids. The district is seeking private and federal funding to pay for training and management - costs that could reach $3 million over the next three years.

Rouhanifard said it may take years before officials can measure success, but he believes the results will be significant.

"We're playing the long game," Rouhanifard said last week. "This is as complex as our work gets."

Rouhanifard, appointed in 2013 by Gov. Christie to lead the state-run, 16,000-student school district, said that after moving to Camden, he sought out local experts to help him learn about the long-term trauma that can result in children who are raised amid poverty and chaos.

He and members of his administration spent time with the Rev. Jeff Putthoff, founder of Hopeworks, a nonprofit group that for a decade has provided trauma-informed care to young people.

They met with physician Jeffrey C. Brenner, director of Cooper University Hospital's Institute of Urban Health and founder of the Camden Coalition of Healthcare Providers, who has studied how health-care costs can be reduced by treating emergency room "super-utilizer" patients in their homes.

And they drew from a 20-year study finding that disadvantaged children benefited from even small amounts of regular socialization.

Brenner's model of "hot spotting" patient care involves going directly to homes. Joanna Lack, the district's chief performance officer who is leading the district's project, suggested they try a similar strategy.

Administrators chose the first group by looking at students who were missing the most school or were most often in truancy court. They reached out to parents, who were receptive as soon as they realized that Lack and others weren't there to tell them what to do.

"It's about asking them questions rather than coming in with prescriptive ideas," Lack said. "It's the difference between asking, 'What's wrong with you?' vs. 'What happened to you?' "

The Coalition of Healthcare Providers helped them get off the ground, Rouhanifard said, assisting with debriefing after visits and identifying next steps.

In addition to illuminating the struggles in families' lives, the visits helped administrators better understand the social service agencies in Camden, and their failures and limitations. They learned that solving one problem sometimes uncovered others, Lack said.

The student Rouhanifard worked with was living in an unstable home situation, and was not going to school because he was being bullied. He had missed months of school, but after he transferred to another school and connected with agencies that helped him move in with another relative, he didn't miss another day, Rouhanifard said.

One 18-year-old woman who participated in the program said she stopped going to high school because she lived far away and because she was struggling with her classes and problems at home. When Lack and another administrator came to her door, she was surprised. It was the first time anyone from the school district had come to her and asked how they could help.

"They made me feel better," said the woman, who spoke on the condition that she not be identified. "They're real positive people. I could have a conversation with them."

She transferred to a school closer to home, enrolled, and is on track to get her diploma next year. She hopes to attend nursing school and become a home health aide. She said she was glad she got help now, rather than later.

"I want to become something in life," she said. "I'm still young, and I can still make it. I still have time for me to do what I want to do."

Lack and Rouhanifard said they hoped that as they bring more students into the program, they will develop better structure and ideas for how to serve every kind of challenge.

"At some point, we will be saying, 'We saw this before,' " Lack said. "And we'll be able to say we know some of the things that worked."

asteele@phillynews.com856-779-3876@AESteele