Improvements in Camden’s state-run public schools were trumpeted by Gov. Christie during this week’s State of the State address as one of his administration’s major accomplishments.
But was his assessment accurate? That’s a trickier question to answer.
Christie was brief but clear in his praise, citing the state’s takeover of the school district under his watch as a mark of progress in a city that has long been the poster child for the worst urban decay.
But the full story of the first full year of the state’s takeover of the Camden schools district is more complicated, with the gains more nuanced and plenty of challenges still ahead.
State-appointed Superintendent Paymon Rouhanifard, among those invited to the State of the State address, said yesterday that he was honored to be highlighted by the governor and continues to appreciate the support.
He said there was much to be proud of in the district, including improvements in safety, as well as other tangible measures, such as an improved graduation rate.
“It’s certainly nice to have the governor’s support,” Rouhanifard said a day after the speech. “[Improvement to the schools] is a really hard and complex issue, but it means a lot to have his support.”
But Rouhanifard didn’t downplay the challenges, saying that while the district has made some significant gains, there is much to be accomplished.
He didn’t list the tasks ahead, but they include pending contract talks with all of the district’s major unions and a budget shortfall that puts further layoffs firmly on the table. Last year, Rouhanifard laid off more than 300 staffers, including teachers.
Rouhanifard noted that the district’s graduation rate rose to 62 percent last year, an increase of about six points.
“But at the same time, that is still more than a third of students who are not graduating on time,” he noted.
Among the most contentious issues in Camden is the growth of charter schools under the new Urban Hope Act, which cleared the way for charter networks to set up neighborhood schools in the district.
Three large charter networks have won approval for as many as 15 new schools, and a recent extension of the law has opened the way for more.
Christie on Tuesday praised the new law for giving Camden families more education options.
Rouhanifard said it has been a success so far, especially in serving a cross-section of the city’s population. He cited one of the new charter networks, Mastery Schools, for taking in a large number of students with special-education needs. Mastery is located in the Pyne Poynt School building, along with the district's school, and Rouhanifard said the two principals and staffs have worked well together.
“We are making sure that it is not a tale of two cities,” he said. “We didn’t want kids walking in to see two different schools.”
But Rouhanifard said there’s no move afoot to expand the so-called “renaissance schools” in the district with a fourth operator. Under the law's extension, the district has the option to put out a new request for proposals for additional schools, but Rouhanifard said there have been no such discussions.
“At this point, we have our hands full with the existing [district] schools,” he said.
For all the praise, there is hardly a consensus on the state takeover. Critics have maintained that the Christie is seeking a private takeover of the public schools.
“Camden public schools are at the moment being dismantled by the New Jersey Department of Education,” said Jose Delgado, a former local board member and now-frequent critic of the administration.
Delgado said Camden schools still face diminished resources, and that the growth of the charter schools has been at the expense of the district schools.
As the charter schools continue to expand, he alleged, the district will be left to serve the most disadvantaged children.
“They talk a good game, but the reality is the district is not addressing the needs of the Camden school children,” he said.
But the president of the local school board – now relegated to being an advisory board under the state’s control – said Christie’s steps are so far so good.
“I’m a Democrat and [Christie’s] a Republican, but he’s taking care of the children of Camden,” said Kathryn Blackshear, the board president. “I think in partnership with the mayor and Mr. Paymon, we are turning around.”
Blackshear said there are plenty of hurdles ahead, especially when it comes to funding, but there had been clear progress since the state’s takeover – if nothing more than a new sense of pride.
“Are we perfect? No, but we are a lot better than where we were a year ago,” she said.