News & Stories


Philadelphia Inquirer: Camden school district makes improvements; adds 3 Renaissance schools

20140901_inq_jprincipals01-cWhen Paymon Rouhanifard was appointed by the state a year ago to lead the Camden School District, one of the first questions asked was whether he planned to make Camden an all-charter district.

Then, as today, he said he focused on “great schools, not the package they come in.”

“Look, the conversation about district vs. Renaissance vs. charter is not a conversation about what’s best for kids,” he said in a recent interview. “That’s just not the way families choose schools for their students, or else you wouldn’t have as many students in traditional charters as you do today, or as many students on the wait lists.”

This school year, three new Renaissance schools, district-charter hybrids, have opened in Camden and are cleared to grow to serve as many as 9,000 students among the three nonprofit operators in the next 10 years.

On Tuesday, 11,500 students are expected to arrive for the district’s first day of school. Camden also has nine conventional charter schools.

Critics, mostly from the teachers’ union, point to the district support given to the three Renaissance school operators, Mastery, Uncommon, and KIPP, and ask what Rouhanifard has done for the 26 traditional public schools.

“I don’t think he’s done enough with the [traditional] public schools,” said Larry Zahn, a teacher with the district and a frequent critic of the administration. “He’s instituting charter concepts into his public schools; some of those concepts work, but some really don’t pertain to all children.” Zahn works with special-needs students.

Rouhanifard cites his Camden Commitment plan – covering safe schools, better facilities, student support, teaching and learning, serving parents, and central office effectiveness – as evidence to the contrary.

“Our strategic plan is for the most part, if not 97 percent, focused on improving our district schools,” he said.

Among the accomplishments the district touts from the last school year, many of which fit into the commitment’s five categories:

Increasing prekindergarten enrollment by 16 percent.

Improvements in security, including installation of new cameras, retraining security officers, relaunching the safe corridors program, and revising the suspension policy.

Improvements in technology, including expanded wireless coverage and 2,300 new laptops for teachers and students.

Creation of a district parent center, which offers English as a second language, computer skills, and job classes, along with help desks at each school to promote parental involvement.

“It’s not to say we’ve hit every single last goal, but we’re making a lot of progress and we’re really proud of the accomplishments here,” Rouhanifard said.

The district also nearly doubled the professional development that principals and teachers receive.

“That’s where it begins. We’ve been on this campaign discussing what comprises a great school. It starts with an excellent principal,” he said.

Each school now has a lead educator who works with principals and who coaches and evaluates teachers. A summer institute, the first of its kind in Camden, was launched last month through the Relay Graduate School of Education, a nonprofit, credentialed, graduate school in New York.

The two-week program focused on effective ways to develop lesson plans and to coach and evaluate teachers.

“We’ve never had anything this early or this focused,” MetEast High School principal Timothy Jenkins said at the training. “Most of this planning I would have been doing on my own.”

But even the training session wasn’t without critics. Relay’s board of directors includes Norman Atkins, founder of Uncommon Schools; and David Levin, cofounder and superintendent of KIPP New York City – the companies involved with the new Renaissance schools.

The connection concerned retired school principal Claudia Cream.

“Principals should not be required to implement Uncommon curriculum,” she said at last week’s school board meeting, referring to Uncommon Schools’ training materials used in some sessions of the institute. “One size does not fit all.”

Assistant Superintendent Sean Gallagher called Relay a “highly effective training program.”

Perhaps one of the biggest announcements will come in the fall, when Rouhanifard said the Schools Development Authority is expected to pledge more than $30 million to renovate Camden High School.

As for the other school buildings, there has been cosmetic upkeep, but the district is still updating a long-range facilities plan to submit to the authority for major improvements, Rouhanifard said.

Robert Farmer, president of the Camden Education Association, said one year was too soon to tell how the superintendent is doing.

“He has a job to do, he’s been sent here by the governor, and he has to get that job done. Our job is to make sure that those five commitments are for all schools, because they’re all our children. Whether in charters, private, public, all should be served fairly,” he said.