News & Stories


Camden Superintendent Who Led Turnaround Is Stepping Down

April 11th – The New York Times, By: Kate Zernike

CAMDEN, N.J. — The state takeover of this troubled city’s school district gambled on a big question: After years of experiments with more money and charter schools, could anything improve education in Camden?

Five years in, Camden’s answer seems to be yes. With a new model of charter and a new superintendent, student performance and the graduation rate have surged. The dropout rate has been cut in half. When the state arrived in 2013, 23 of the city’s 26 public schools were on the list of New Jersey’s worst performing, eight are now.

The takeover also promised to answer a question that has dogged charters since they were created 25 years ago: Can they produce impressive results if they have to take over neighborhood schools, rather than creating new ones made up of self-selecting families? On that score, the new charter schools have a higher percentage of special education students than the district’s traditional public schools — highly unusual, and maybe unheard-of.

Now comes the next big question, which is how much of Camden’s success has been because of its superintendent, Paymon Rouhanifard. On Wednesday, he told New Jersey’s governor, Phil Murphy, that he will resign at the end of this school year.

Mr. Rouhanifard was 32 when he was appointed in the takeover, an Iranian refugee running schools in a majority black and Hispanic city where family histories, and poverty, run deep.

A veteran of Goldman Sachs, Teach for America and KIPP charter schools, he was labeled a reformer by education warriors who do not consider that a compliment. And he has embraced tactics from the reform playbook; Camden now has 55 percent of students in charter schools; only New Orleans, which was remade as an almost all-charter district after Hurricane Katrina, has a higher percentage.

But Mr. Rouhanifard — almost universally “Paymon” or “Mr. Paymon” to residents here — has won support in traditional public schools, as well, managing transformation without the rancor that has frustrated change in other cities.

“We want to be supportive of our own, I think some of his critics are quicker to say things because they look at him as not one of us, not having a cultural identity, not a classroom teacher for that long,” said Sean Brown, who voted against the state takeover as a school board member, and whose mother taught in Camden public schools. “Those arguments are old, and inaccurate.”

“Previous superintendents, you could not get a meeting with them,” Mr. Brown said. “He has student round tables, teacher round tables, he’s hearing directly from people some of the things that are going on. I have not seen that responsiveness in my time in Camden.”

There was a sense of a city at rock bottom when the state takeover happened; six months earlier, officials had disbanded Camden’s police force in favor of a nonunionized one to get more officers on the streets.

The city’s public school students had long been the victims of acrimony and apathy. School board members could win election with 400 votes in a city of 75,000, resulting in political instability that saw 13 superintendents in 16 years. The state had long spent generously to help, with little improvement; per pupil spending was more than $19,000 in 2012-2013, but only 1.4 percent of the city’s SAT-takers met the benchmark for college readiness.

Buildings were crumbling, sometimes literally; students at Whittier Elementary had to enter through the rear door because the front steps had disintegrated. Other schools had no running water.

The state law authorizing the takeover created so-called renaissance schools, which would be run by nonprofit charter school operators with good track records elsewhere. Like charters, they are publicly funded but operated by private boards. But they are different from traditional charter schools in three respects. They had to take over existing schools and admit all students within their zones; they had to pay to renovate buildings — they were given the most decrepit buildings in the most dangerous neighborhoods, while district schools kept the newest buildings — and they had contracts with the local school board in addition to a charter from the state.

Camden’s unusual politics greased the way for the legislation; it was supported by George E. Norcross III, the powerful local Democratic businessman who had the ear of Gov. Chris Christie and a brother who sponsored the bill as a state senator.

To Mr. Rouhanifard, the bill was “the best piece of education legislation I’ve seen,” because it addressed the problem of charter schools taking only students who had transportation, or parents savvy enough to navigate enrollment and wait lists.

“Charters could take you only so far,” he said in an interview. “You can’t effect change if it’s a system that takes some but not all kids.”

The contracts he made with the renaissance schools required them to pay if they sent special education students to expensive outside schools; in the past, as in other districts, the district was stuck with the cost. They also effectively required the renaissance schools to share custodial services with the district schools. This eased community opposition and disruption — 64 percent of those custodians were Camden residents (compared with only 9 percent of teachers).

It has not been all friendly or easy. Mr. Rouhanifard closed two schools and handed five others to renaissance operators, reducing staff in part by attrition but also by layoffs.

But he won community support with a 100-day listening tour, and by coaching basketball at district schools. Security guards and guidance counselors now greet him warmly.

His goal, he said, was to create “fewer, better schools.”

Kathryn Blackshear, the president of the advisory school board, created after the takeover, said that when the state came in, “I didn’t know what to pray for.

“So I said, ‘God, it’s one of those times it’s got to be your will and not mine,” she said. When the state commissioner called her to introduce Mr. Rouhanifard, she said, “I burst out laughing. I never expected him.”

Mr. Rouhanifard was, to borrow Barack Obama’s self-description, a skinny kid with a funny name. Ms. Blackshear, like many here, believed the city’s existing charter schools operated as elite private schools, restricting enrollment to all but the most promising students, and pushing out students just after Oct. 15, the date that the state counts enrollment to determine how much money the schools get. She worried the new platform was “to bring in rich people to make money through education.”

But, she said, “renaissance schools made charters have to step up to the plate.” Mr. Rouhanifard, she said, won her over by supporting district as well as renaissance schools.

The teachers union president, Keith Benson, does not agree. “He would say, ‘I’m not choosing a side,’ but the reality is the bulk of his energy has been spent propping up renaissance schools,” he said.

District schools still score below the renaissance schools, although their gains have been greater.

And all schools still have a long way to go. Improvement here means that the percentage of students in district and renaissance schools who meet the definition of “proficient” on the state English language arts test is 15.7 percent, up from 6.5 percent the first year of the takeover. In math, 11.4 percent of students are proficient, up from 4.3 percent.

At Bonsall Elementary School, no students scored “proficient” the year after Uncommon Schools, a charter school operator, took over, renaming the school Camden Prep. The next year, 37.5 percent did, on both math and English tests.

The charter school operators — in addition to Uncommon, they include KIPP and Mastery Schools — have invested about $220 million in new or rehabbed school buildings. The district, which still serves all high school students, is spending $136 million to build a new high school.

Jason Herbert’s twins have multiple disabilities, including autism, and were nonverbal when they arrived at Camden Prep, in a neighborhood where block after block of houses are abandoned. He had thought little of charter schools when he and his wife moved here from Brooklyn. There, he said, “They opened and closed within a couple of years because they couldn’t come up with a good model, or the neighborhood was shut out.”

Within two weeks, he said, he saw an improvement in his children’s social and academic skills. The twins, now in second grade, were soon reading, and on a recent day were counting out different ways to get to 20 cents.

“I wouldn’t say it’s 100 percent, but I’m going to say 98 percent, which is awesome,” he said. “They’ve worked with me hand in hand.”

Octavius V. Catto School, a district elementary school that was on the list of the state’s worst performing, is now offering middle school algebra and will begin a gifted and talented program.

The principal, Byron Dixon, credited the coaching and training that Mr. Rouhanifard had brought in. Nearly every school leader was sent to Relay, a training program run by the founders of Uncommon. “I’m upset we didn’t have this years ago,” he said.

Mr. Rouhanifard says the city is positioned to win back local control of its schools, based on the scoring formula the state created. In the meantime, he is supporting as his successor a Camden high school graduate, Katrina McCombs, who was the principal at an elementary school that became a renaissance school, and has gone on to lead the district’s new division of school support, which helps schools with curriculum, professional development and services for bilingual and special education students.

“I will always be the face of a state takeover for many people,” Mr. Rouhanifard said. “I don’t believe staying on is right for the community.”