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Philadelphia Inquirer: In Camden, room for hope

Since arriving in Camden as a newly trained family physician more than 15 years ago, I have watched the city’s school district slide into ever deeper dysfunction.

Haphazard state oversight, a crumbling physical infrastructure, an endless parade of terrible statistics, poor leadership, and a series of heartbreaking scandals have left America’s poorest city without a functioning public education system. The dropout statistics speak for themselves:

Despite spending far more per student than wealthy suburban districts ($27,500 in 2013-14), Camden sees about 50 percent of students drop out before graduation.

I have hired many graduates of the Camden School District. Despite having tremendous natural talent and a high school diploma, many of them barely performed beyond the eighth-grade level. Their poor ability to read, write, and solve problems showed the depth of failure occurring within the district. Nothing can justify the depth of failure that has been occurring. Educators should not shift blame to failed parenting, family dysfunction, or violence in the streets. These are challenges that should be overcome by a well-run system.

Let’s review a short list of the ways adults in the district have failed children: a principal stole money from poor parents by charging for school trips paid for by the district; a standardized-test cheating scandal caused an honest principal to be fired for exposing the truth; the district went years without any meaningful budget or fiscal controls; dead people were on the payroll receiving benefits; and the publicly elected school board conducted meetings without a quorum, often engaging in political disputes with little to no discussion of students’ needs.

These are symptoms of a failing system with no leadership or modern administrative structures.

Despite its many talented teachers, Camden has an obsolete education system in need of a dramatic turnaround. If the district were a corporation, it would be declared bankrupt and closed.

Essentially, that’s what the city did with its Police Department. Its failure was so deep and pervasive that it was closed. Officers were forced to reapply for their jobs in the newly rebuilt Camden County Police Department. In a short time, the results are already quite impressive.

Similarly, this should be the last cycle of reform for the school district. Either the problems are addressed or the district should be closed. Create a Camden County School District, and have all members of the staff reapply for their jobs.

Until then, the city is fortunate to have a new superintendent, Paymon Rouhanifard, and fresh district leadership committed to Camden’s students. Rouhanifard is working toward ensuring that every student in Camden has a fair shot at a brighter future. He and his team are committed to children’s safety in schools, 21st-century technology, families having access to pre-K learning, and offering options that best meet each student’s unique needs. This team is committed to operating the school system with efficiency, integrity, and transparency.

Because he inherited a broken system, Rouhanifard’s task is a daunting one. Camden has had four superintendents over the last two years. Enrollment has dropped about 1,000 students during the last five years, while spending increased more than 10 percent, leading to more expenses than revenue. Despite being one of the most richly funded districts, Camden has poor results that have persisted.

Working within this distressed system, the superintendent has provided leadership and innovation where before there was none. Because of overspending, the district faced a sizable financial deficit last spring. To comply with state law, the district must balance its budget. Guided by the best interests of students, families, and Camden, the district tried to make budget cuts in a thoughtful and transparent way. It did everything possible to mitigate the impact on teachers and staff. Unfortunately, some layoffs needed to happen.

Ultimately, beginnings count. And attempting a new beginning after a difficult past requires courage, imagination, leadership, and collective action. We must all do our part to support the superintendent’s efforts and come together to bring about a new beginning for our city. It is a beginning that brims with the same promise that filled the city when it was a symbol of innovation and possibility not that many decades ago. And it is a beginning rooted in the idea that no matter your neighborhood, how much money your family has, or the color of your skin, every kid deserves a good education and fair chance to succeed.

Dr. Jeff Brenner is the executive director and founder of the Camden Coalition of Healthcare Providers.