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Camden schools chief can be proud of record | Editorial

By South Jersey Times Editorial Board

There’s general agreement that the Camden schools are losing a good man and a strong advocate with Superintendent Paymon Rohanifard’s announcement that he’ll leave the underperforming, state-run district at the end of the school year.

At age 36, Rohanifard will have had a five-year run that positions him for great things ahead during the balance of his education career. But what’s more important to the students in Camden’s public and charter schools, and for both defenders and detractors of urban school systems everywhere, is that he leaves the district with a viable blueprint for turning things around. 

Once Rohanifard leaves, it’ll be up to his successors, and the career instructors and administrators he’s energized, to carry on the momentum rather than squandering it. To whatever extent that the superintendent is guilty of unbridled boosterism about the often-maligned schools and their modest successes, it has paid off with a level of parental involvement rarely seen in districts with so many socioeconomic challenges.

Even given the historic suspicion that districts like Camden embellish or fudge the metrics — indeed, Camden schools had a widespread test-score scandal 12 years ago — the measurable improvement since Rohanifard came along is well beyond any margin of error or mischief.

Among the stats that district officials cite are: a dropout rate that has declined from 21 to 11 percent; K-8 math proficiency almost tripled in the past three years; reading proficiency doubled over the past three years; and a 2017 graduation rate that jumped to 66 percent from 49 percent in 2012.

Anyway you cut it, that’s progress, although Rohanifard would be among the first to say that a lot more remains to be done.

Public officials like the superintendent deserve the benefit of any doubt when they use the “spend more time with my family” line when asked why they are leaving. Rohanifard does have a newborn daughter at home with his wife and 4-year-old son.

But it’s always natural to wonder if other, less family-friendly factors were at play.

Rohanifard was appointed by Republican Gov. Chris Christie under deep skepticism that he was placed in Camden mainly to boost the fortunes of charter schools, which are funded through the school district but operate under far fewer regulations. More Camden students are in charters and “renaissance schools” than when he arrived, but Rohanifard never gave the impression that he was out to shortchange traditional public schools. It’s to his credit that he was able to maintain community “buy-in” to these alternatives without the rancor that occurred in Newark, for example.

Charters’ records are mixed, to be sure. Teachers’ unions, however, seem never seem to have met a single one they actually like. Because new Democrat Gov. Phil Murphy in February fired a just-hired deputy Department of Education commissioner with whom the New Jersey Education Association had problems, we hope that Rohanifard was not felled by a similar hidden hand. (Murphy denies that he fired the deputy administrator because the NJEA asked him to do so.)

Again, it’s up to all stakeholders to keep the Camden schools on a path of progress that ultimately will lead them from the constraints of state control. For whatever reason Paymon Rohanifard is leaving, his enthusiasm and his engagement with the community will be difficult to replace.

The outgoing superintendent was known to drop in on parents’ homes to encourage their potential-dropout kids to stay in school. Even the best doctors don’t make house calls anymore.